Blog: Why Your Projects Fail, and How to Get Them Back on Track

In this ever-changing and evolving business environment, companies are increasingly investing in new projects and initiatives as they strive to keep up with shifting currents and innovations within their industries. Through this constant change, finding success in business is largely dependent on the success of individual company projects.
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Rob Stauffer
Rob Stauffer // Photo courtesy of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center

In this ever-changing and evolving business environment, companies are increasingly investing in new projects and initiatives as they strive to keep up with shifting currents and innovations within their industries. Through this constant change, finding success in business is largely dependent on the success of individual company projects.

Many project managers tend to stick to “their way” of managing projects, regardless of how successful their methods may be. But digging deeper, most would realize that their strategies are not only ineffective, but are costing their organization much time, money, and effort with each failed project.

Understanding why your projects fail begins with understanding the five phases of project management: initiate, plan, execute, control, and close. For the most part, there are two main reasons why projects end in failure: project managers jump straight to the execute phase, disregarding the planning and initial steps necessary to support execution, or the projects end up being abandoned and never fully completed, or closed.

Beyond this, there are countless challenges that can arise throughout the duration of a project and hold teams back from success. To prevent these obstacles from getting in the way of your next project’s completion, read on for tips on how to combat some of the most common problems in project management.

  • Poor communication – The first and most important step to project success is communication. Managers must make an intentional effort to prioritize communication, starting with the creation of a communication plan in the initiate phase. This should go beyond just emails, with most communication involving face-to-face meetings to discuss goals and project tasks. Collaboration is a must, as project managers need to be able to work well with others to identify the best ways to approach the project. An important component of this communication is to publicly share ongoing tasks and project progress to ensure all members of the team are in the loop.
  • Misidentification of stakeholders – Often, project managers fail to include all employees who are impacted by the project, which can be detrimental to the project overall. Or, on the contrary, they end up including too many workers in the process and waste the time of people who have no reason to be involved in the project. To avoid these issues, during the initiate phase, project managers should create a stakeholder register, or list of identified people who absolutely need to be involved in the project.
  • Finding a sponsor – Most projects will be doomed if they do not have a sponsor, or someone to make decisions, allocate resources, and provide support overall. Without resources and support, the project will get nowhere. Having one sponsor can largely boost the success of your project, but having three to four sponsors is even better. This change control board can then vote on major project decisions, rather than leaving everything up to you.
  • Risk consideration – This should be accomplished in the initiate phase of your project. As mentioned above, most project managers tend to skip to the execute phase, so risks are never discussed. But with so many potential risk factors, it is critical that these aspects are addressed and mitigated before the project begins. The best way to do so is to outline a risk register, which documents all risks relevant to the project.
  • Scope creep – It is common for project managers to try to tackle too much at once, like trying to fit 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag. What started as a well-intended, focused project just keeps growing. When this happens, you will likely end up going over budget, or, worse yet, your project will never be completed. Most issues with scope creep can be eliminated by getting a sponsor or change control board involved with the project to handle decision making and ensure the project stays focused.
  • Deliverables versus tasks – Typically when allocating responsibilities, project managers will assign a deliverable to someone and assume it will be completed according to plan. However, these larger deliverables should first be broken down into smaller tasks to more easily manage each step of the job and better monitor progress. Additionally, one deliverable might involve more than one employee, making it essential that each individual task is identified along with the person responsible for its completion. Generally, assigning tasks to specific workers will help maintain accountability throughout the project process as well as prevent workers from using the excuse, “That’s not my job.”
  • Project reassignment – In most cases, when projects are reassigned, they also have to be restarted because the previous manager did not communicate anything to the new manager about project progress. In the unfortunate event that a project must be passed off to someone else, perhaps because the original manager was too busy, for example, there are a number of ways the original manager can ensure this hand-off is as swift as possible. By initially establishing a strong communication plan, stakeholder register, change control board, and risk register, as explained above, the new manager will have all of the information and tools needed to easily pick up where the previous manager left off and lead the project to completion.
  • Lessons not learned – The reason projects not only fail, but fail repeatedly, is largely because you did not learn any lessons from your previous project. For example, why are your estimates for time or cost consistently off? Without properly documenting what went well and what went poorly in your last project, you will end up in a repeated cycle of dysfunction. Documentation will not only help your team avoid disasters, but also enable you to keep doing things that work well.

No matter how big or small the project, these tools will ensure your project team stays on track for success. By establishing strong support and communication and continually learning from past mistakes and challenges, there’s no reason your projects can’t be successful.

Rob Stauffer is a senior lean, costing, and project management consultant at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, a consulting organization serving Michigan manufacturers.

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