How to Overcome The Top 5 Causes of Project Failure

September 17, 2014 Marcus Varner

By Bryan Nielson, Executive VP of Strategy, Go-to-Markets & Product. Article originally seen in Manufacturing Business Technology

It’s a fact of life — and business — that not everything will go exactly as you’d planned. And, if you work in the IT industry, you face this reality every day. Failures large and small — from budget overruns, scope creep and missed deadlines to catastrophic technical issues — can crop up in even the most well-executed plans.

You know from experience that failures are quite common, but you may be surprised to learn just how significant the problem is across the industry. Each year, U.S. companies alone spend more than $250 billion on IT projects. But, only one-third are considered a success, some 62 percent are delivered late and nearly half come in over budget, which equates to a project failure cost of more than $125 billion each year.

While it’s good to know you’re not alone, chalking it up to “the cost of doing business” and commiserating with colleagues about your mutual misery is not going to help. Wouldn’t it be better to change the status quo?

They say the first step on the road to recovery is to admit you have a problem. Fortunately, the endless flood of failed projects also seems to indicate that these failures share a common MO, making it fairly easy to identify the root cause. To finally turn the tide on your history of project failure, start by identify which of these top five causes of project failure are plaguing your team. Then, put a stop to it by implementing a few changes to finally say farewell to failure.

1 Poor planning

While it’s easy to recognize failure at the end, it almost always starts at the beginning. Lack of proper planning and prioritization can doom a project from Day 1. Some symptoms of poor planning include production bottlenecks and the inability to move work forward to the next step, communication breakdowns and lack of sufficient resources to get the job done. And, even the best-laid plans can be derailed by urgent or unplanned projects. In fact, the he average IT organization spends nearly half of its time on fire drill activities.

Fix: Map out the entire lifecycle of each project before you get started. Ensure that work priorities align with the company’s overall strategic objectives and that everyone is on board with the expected workflow, timeline and process. Build status updates and reporting, routing and approval processes and communication expectations into the work plan, so there’s no confusion on responsibilities, dependencies and who needs to be involved. And, since fire drills are inevitable, build in some “slush” time to accommodate urgent projects, without jeopardizing the project timeline.

2 Disconnected tools

Technology is a wonderful thing, but when it becomes overwhelming, it can be more of a hindrance than advantage. The average person uses 13 different methods to control and manage their time. Now, we need more time just to manage our time. When ‘tool overload’ gets out of control, critical data gets lost in the shuffle. Team members spend too much time and energy searching for information in emails, the intranet, shared folders, etc. and end up working just as hard to stay in the loop as they are on the actual project.

Fix: Choose a comprehensive tool and stick with it. Deploy a standardized platform in which all project communication, collaboration and data storage and sharing takes place, within the context of the work, and in full visibility of the entire team. A cloud-based centralized platform can consolidate communication threads, make data accessible and easy to find, and provide a frustration-free system for interaction among team members, no matter where they’re located.

3 Lack of visibility

Poor visibility leaves the entire team flying blind. No one knows who’s working on what now, or what comes next. Status reports are perpetually out of date because no one remembers to make updates — or they don’t want to admit that they’re running behind. In many organizations, responsibility for maintaining and updating project status in spreadsheets or PPM software falls on the shoulders of just one or two people, who spend most of their time chasing down other staff members for information. Sound familiar?

Fix: Develop a centralized system for documenting all tasks (even the small ones) that are part of the project. Identify who’s responsible, the deadline and what happens next — and who’s responsible for that. Include real-time status updates as part of the system so that anyone — from the IT analyst to the CTO — can check in to see where each and every project stands at any given time, who’s working on what, and who might need some help. Decentralizing the status and reporting function and making it a natural part of the workflow, spreads the responsibility across the entire team and ensures the current status is always, well, current. And, it will virtually eliminate the need for regular status meetings, which are a huge waste of time.

4 Poor resource allocation

This goes hand-in-hand with poor visibility. Because no one can see who’s working on what, who might have some excess capacity and what the upcoming work queue looks like, staff quickly become overwhelmed and the work just keeps piling on. Bottlenecks in the workflow bring the entire project to a screeching halt, but it’s unclear where or exactly why they occur. Finger pointing, overtime, shortcuts and “good enough” become standard operating procedure, as do errors, rework and revisions to fix the problems that result.

Fix: By gaining visibility over the workflow, work capacity and current assignment queue for team members with a centralized work management system, it’s easy to see where resource deficits and bottlenecks lie. But, beyond just shedding light on the problem, empower team members to ask for help and/or decline assignments (with justification, of course) as appropriate. Once you’ve got a handle on visibility and resource allocation, help staff to minimize interruptions, giving them more time to focus on productive work. Allocate “blackout” hours during which meetings are prohibited, or allow them to hang “Do Not Disturb” signs on their cubicles or doors.

5 Lack of measurement and correction

IT project failure is often a perpetual cycle of repeating the same mistakes over and over. Project debriefs are designed to identify “lessons learned” and help to improve the process for future application. But in many cases, these do little more than pay lip service to what went wrong, and end up becoming more of a “blame game” than a useful and insightful exercise to drive continuous improvement.

Fix: Establish goals and KPIs for every stage of the process — not just the project as a whole — and track progress against those goals along the way. By examining performance and problems at each phase, in smaller chunks, rather than in aggregate across the entire project, it’s easier to make incremental adjustments to improve the overall end result. Think of it like paving a road — it’s easier to fill in gaping potholes along the way to achieve a nice smooth finish at the end than it is to just pave over the craters and go back and make repairs after the fact. This way, process improvements won’t seem like such an upheaval when you implement them on the next project, which lowers the learning curve and keeps the process changes themselves from getting in the way of progress.

Sometimes project failures happen for reasons beyond your control, and there’s certainly no magic bullet that can put a stop to failure in every possible scenario. But, when the same internal issues continue to manifest in the same failures — missed deadlines, over budget, over-worked employees and lackluster results — over and over, it’s time to take action. Now that you’ve identified the problem and the fix, implementing a comprehensive work management system can address virtually all of these areas with one, cohesive solution, and put you and your team on the road to recovery from the failure status quo.

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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