Avoiding Project Failure (or Achieving Project Success)

Avoiding Project Failure (or Achieving Project Success)

Insights | 16 August 2013

Author, Tracey Copland

Aren’t these statements just one and the same? Is the glass half empty or half full? Does avoiding the common reasons for project failure set-up your project for success?

Why do Projects Fail?

According to the PMBOK® guide, Fifth Edition, “Communication has been identified as one of the single biggest reasons for project success or failure. Effective communication is essential”.

Let’s understand this further as communication is an entire ecosystem in itself on a project. Specifically, the most commonly cited reasons for project failure are:

  • Lack of/poor senior management support
  • Unclear requirements
  • Lack of/poor planning
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Inappropriate resources
  • No clear project ownership

As you review this list you can see that communication comes into each of these. Let’s turn this around and focus on what we can do to avoid project failure and establish a solid foundation for project success.

What is Project Success?

We have all heard the classic statement that project success should be measured in terms of completing the project within the constraints of scope, time, cost, quality, resources and risk (refer PMI’s PMBOK® guide, Fifth Edition).

Or another way of measuring project success is seeing whether it delivers what the user expects and finds acceptable (Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2®).

It is obvious, simple and easy to determine if your project is a success based on these definitions, right? Definitely not – each project is unique, hence how we define success should be defined in relation to that project.

Consider my own personal project as an example. The brief given was to build a two-storey, double brick, four bedroom house within a 12 month timeframe. Did I get the house? Yes. Was it to scope? Yes. Was it within the timeframe? Yes. To budget – well yes. Would I recommend the builder? NO! Says it all doesn’t it?

For example if the success criteria included quality and we define quality as customer satisfaction – then this was where the project failed for me and somehow got lost in the translation. Needless to say the builder didn’t communicate regularly, was painful to deal with, and numerous building faults were found. While the fundamental specifics of the project were met the process along the end product wasn’t one of quality which defeats the desired end customer experience.

The No. 1 Pre-requisite to Project Success – Define Success for your project

Do exactly that – ensure that upfront the Sponsor (in consultation with senior management) defines and agrees on measurable criteria that define success for that project. These need to be communicated and understood by the Project Manager and should form part of the agreement for the project between the Sponsor and Project Manager.

The success criteria need to be clearly documented, re-visited along the journey (Health Check) and of course reviewed at project closure to determine what has, what hasn’t, what still needs to be achieved.

Gearing up for Project Success

Defining (and agreeing) what success means for your project is an important milestone but to gear your project for success, what else do we need to consider?

1. Get Executive Management on Board

  • Are the key decision makers on board?
  • Do they have a stake in the outcome (or as some like to say, “Do they have skin in the game”?)
  • Do senior management/steering committee members understand their role on the project?
  • Do senior management have a clear understanding and agreement on what the project is meant to achieve?

2. Ensure Clear Statement of Requirements

  • Is there a complete and achievable vision? Is this documented and clearly visible to all?
  • Has an initial/preliminary risk assessment been conducted?
  • Is there a clearly defined and agreed Business Case?
  • Can the success of the project be accurately measured?

3. Plan, Plan, Plan

  • Is there a problem statement?
  • Is there a solution statement?
  • Do we have the right people at the right time?
  • Do we have attainable milestones?
  • Has the plan been agreed to?
  • Are plans reviewed regularly and any changes appropriated approved and incorporated?

4. Set Realistic Expectations

  • Do we have clear specifications? Are they realistic?
  • Do we have a clear understanding of the prioritisation of needs?
  • Have the ‘must-haves’ and nice-to-haves’ been clearly distinguished?
  • Will we be able to manage change effectively?
  • If appropriate to the project, can a sample version of a deliverable be created and tested in a ‘real-life’ environment/scenario?

5. Right People

  • Is there an understanding of the skills required of the individual project team members?
  • Do we have the right people?
  • Is there a training program for necessary up-skilling of project resources?
  • Do we have a plan for keeping up team morale and momentum/enthusiasm for the project?

6. Agree Project Ownership

  • Are there clearly defined and agreed roles and responsibilities?
  • Is everyone committed?
  • Is there a clear and well publicised Sponsor?
  • Is there a dedicated project manager and has their role been clearly defined?

In Summary

It’s important to distinguish that each project is unique, therefore, the initial pre-requisite to starting on a successful project journey is to do just that – define what the Success for your Project is!

What success means to your stakeholder? Do those in particular who have the power to sign-off and broadcast the success of you project, mutually agree with the end outcome. Without this you can define what success will mean.

Then from the beginning and throughout your project focus on the following:

  1. Get Executive Management on board
  2. Ensure Clear Statement of Requirements
  3. Plan, plan, plan
  4. Set Realistic Expectations
  5. Right People
  6. Agree Project Ownership
PMBOK is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.
PRINCE2® is a registered trade mark of the Cabinet Office
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