Four reasons why projects fail… and how you can ensure that they don’t

If you ask a project manager what could potentially go wrong with a project, their most likely answer will be along the lines of, “How long have you got?” From conception to planning to execution to post-project fallout, any number of challenges might come up which could, without the proper planning or mitigation in place, delay or even derail a project entirely. I’ve narrowed them down to four main reasons why projects fail, and looked into ways of ensuring that they don’t.

1. They’re not set up for success

Your project will always be up against it if hasn’t been set up for success in the first place. It could be that the scope’s not right, the project hasn’t got the appropriate senior support, the relevant stakeholders aren’t engaged, or the company has underestimated the budget – or even tried to do it for cheaper.

Quite often, a company will have known for some time that they needed to deliver a particular project, but didn’t actually embark on that project until a major event forced them to do so. Then, because they set off too late, they find themselves dealing with a challenging deadline.

A company might have a pool of project managers in place but no oversight as to whether they have the capacity, the right skillset or experience to support. Your stakeholders have a day job to do. If there are multiple projects going on, giving up their time to offer subject matter expertise can be hugely draining. Are you recognising the cost to the business? Are you allowing people to be freed up to support these projects, or are they having to dip into that mythical sixth working day of the week?

Then there are the external factors that could affect your project, such as a budget or general election. Think about what else is happening in the ether that could have an impact, and make sure you have the right mitigations in place.

2. They don’t have the right governance in place

Too often, companies either don’t have the governance in place to hold everyone to account, or people report a risk and no one takes ownership, meaning that what you warned would happen, actually does happen. At the other extreme, there might be so much governance that the people working on the project spend all their time filling in forms in triplicate, which is a distinct waste of their skills.

Getting that governance right is really important, but it’s also about having the associated accountability. Part of that is establishing what gets escalated to what level. If something’s escalated, how will senior leaders leverage their role to unblock the project? If you have a project sponsor, they should be the ultimate point of escalation for the project – they’re not there to get bogged down in the technical nitty gritty.

3. The benefits haven’t been outlined

If you’re not tracking the things that are supposed to change, how can you confirm that you’ve achieved what you set out to? Who’s responsible within the business once the project closes? It’s no use delivering a finance system, for example, if the head of finance doesn’t know they’re responsible for achieving the expected outcomes (not metrics) metrics. How do you prove the return on investment? This requires clear communication at the outset rather than forcing a system on someone and expecting them to get on with it. State at the beginning why the project is being done and what’s expected to come out of it. Sometimes there might not be any benefits as such – the project just has to happen. (Not sure I agree with not having any benefits – there should always be some even if it’s keeping up with current legislation requirements or mitigating business or technical risks. I’d say alarm bells should ring if there are no discernible benefits apart from a “because I said so” from an influential person)

How does the project fit into wider business transformation or strategy? If you’re competing for resources with other parts of the business, what’s the priority? If there’s a conflict of priorities and limited availability of money and people, it’s difficult for any project to succeed. That’s where you need an enterprise PMO to show how the project fits into the company’s wider strategic objectives.

Again, governance is important. How are individuals being managed? Is the project team suitably equipped, skilled and doing the work expected? Have key subject matter experts been told they should be investing time in the project? Are they clear on what is expected of and from them?

4. The lessons haven’t been learned

Too frequently, the lessons from a project are either not captured, or are put into a spreadsheet and forgotten about. Have you reviewed the success of the project? Are you capturing the lessons learned as you go through and, crucially, doing something about them? Think about how you can better engage with all the departments involved. If you need to avoid the first week of every month so that you can fit into the finance cycle, build that into the project plan.

Ensure the project doesn’t stall by celebrating small wins along the way. A major milestone might be months away. Acknowledging the smaller, more regular milestones will give your project team a sense of achievement as they go. Those critical path activities not only show that you’re making progress, but also help you hit big milestone events.

At the beginning, it can feel like there’s so much to do that you don’t know where to start. Think about what’s critical from a requirements and activities perspective. What needs to be signed off before you move on to the next stage? Understanding the critical path, and the little steps that allow you to stay on it, is fundamental.

Summary: giving your project the best chance of success

There are many reasons why a project might fall flat, but you can set up your project for success by having the right people, the right engagement and the right resources – whether systems, budget or time – in place before you start. There needs to be the right balance of governance so that everyone knows what they’re doing, but don’t spend all their time doing admin. Outlining the benefits of the project at the outset will help you get that crucial buy-in from all your stakeholders. Lastly, capturing the lessons along the way – and actually acting on them – will make future projects so much easier.

If you’d like any more advice about ensuring the success of your project or you’re looking for the right talent to help you get your next project off the ground, the Definia team are here to help. Get in touch with us now.