5 Reasons Projects Fail and What You Can Do About It
Projects large and small fail at an alarming rate despite the best plans and intentions. Recent studies show that IT projects fail more often than not and for every billion dollars that is invested, 122 million is wasted due to poor project performance.
Over the years, I have observed many strategic new initiatives kick-off to great fanfare and expectations yet fail after months or even years of effort and limited results. To help leaders mitigate the risk of this happening in their organizations, I have described 5 common reasons projects fail as well as a few suggestions to prevent it from happening.
Why Do Projects Fail? 5 Key Reasons
1. Lack of Strategic Alignment: One of the main reasons projects fail is due to a lack of alignment with the overall corporate vision and objectives. Pet projects launched from within divisions and functions are commonplace in organizations large and small and continue to gain funding during the budget cycle. These types of projects are not necessarily bad, but without proper strategic alignment, they can focus teams and individuals on lower priority objectives and run the risk of getting shuttered as marketplace conditions change. When building the business case for a new project, one of the key stage and gate items should include the degree of alignment with the core strategy of the company, whether it is with the one-year business plan or 5 to 10 year vision of the company. To help assess the alignment of a new initiative, consider asking yourself and the team the following questions.
- How aligned are the objectives of this initiative with those of our current business strategy?
- How will this new initiative support the success of the company strategy?
- Does success of this new initiative increase our chances of achieving our overarching corporate objectives?
2. Lack of Accountability/Ownership: Many key strategic projects cut across functions and business units and as a result, tend to be projects whose objectives are not included in the annual performance metrics of those individuals and teams involved. For example, I worked with a technology company that kicked-off a long-range moonshot initiative, which if successful, would change the trajectory of the company moving forward. The new project was kicked-off during a senior leadership meeting and involved leaders from technology, product management, marketing, and sales. The project was off to a great start and when the project teams came together, strong collaborative discussions occurred to move the project forward. However, when leaders left the meeting and went back to their “day jobs”, commitments made during project meetings tended to get deprioritized relative to other aspects of their jobs. This was not due to any bad intentions of the people involved. Rather, their core roles required a focus on other strategic areas, which had metrics on which their performance would be evaluated. One way to help prevent this from happening in your organization is to integrate the objectives and metrics of key projects with the annual goals for each of the teams and individuals involved. Maintaining the balance between the core focus of a division and function with that of new strategic initiatives is critical not only to the success of these projects, but also to the long-term viability of an organization.
3. Assigning Task Masters, Not Strategic Project Managers: I used to think of “project management” as a four letter word due to my association with box checking project managers with whom I have worked both as a consultant and as part of projects for large companies. I have worked with many clients who assign a “Project Manager” to an initiative to ensure that we stay on time and budget. The problem is that many project managers, even those that are PMP certified, are box checkers that keep “the trains on time”, but offer limited strategic insight, lack the skill to drive ownership and engagement, and stay in CYA mode for much of the time. A few years back, I worked with a client who assigned one of these types of project managers to support the success of a key growth project on which we were engaged. While his intentions were noble, I recall being bombarded at the end of the day with check lists that while valuable to keep track of all of the outstanding items, lacked a strategic layer of insight that is critical to successful collaboration and project execution. For new initiatives, be sure you assign project leads who can not only juggle a multitude of tasks to keep the project on track, but also can add strategic value and possess the skills to gain alignment among cross-functional team members.
4. Limited Ongoing Collaboration: Projects will falter if they do not sustain a high level of collaboration throughout their duration. While project kick-off meetings are successful in communicating project objectives, key performance indicators, and key activities and milestones, there is usually not enough focus placed on ensuring the team will collaborate (and not just communicate) on a regular basis throughout the project. Typically, individuals leave the meeting and go back to their day-to-day roles and rely on weekly project updates that are merely a one-way communication tool to keep team members abreast of project status. Leaders mistakenly assume that projects are like the “set it and forget it” infomercial and will run flawlessly as detailed in the Gantt chart created at the project outset. In reality, priorities and marketplace changes require regular, ongoing collaboration to adjust the approach, tasks and activities, and resources engaged. Not doing so will keep the team focused on the original tasks and objectives, which may or may not stay relevant over time. To prevent this from happening, build regular collaboration into the plan and allow for flexibility to ensure that the plan delivers on the objectives of the organization, not just those of the project or new initiative.
5. Limited Support Mechanisms: Project teams are frequently assembled ad hoc and are given little or no time to onboard team members or build cohesion. As a result, well-formed initiatives may crumble under the weight of intra-team conflict. Interpersonal battles, misunderstandings about individual roles and responsibilities, and a lack of organizational support can all put a project on a path towards collapse. Embedding executive coaches into project teams can help address these problems before the success of the project is at risk. An effective executive coach will not only coach the project team lead, they will also guide individual team members and help foster a productive team culture. They help teams to further enhance alignment by defining the team and project charter, addressing individual leadership gaps, and dealing with conflict among team members.
The successful execution of strategic projects and growth initiatives is key to the ongoing viability of any business entity. Avoiding the pitfalls noted above will help you and your organization successfully execute while continuing to innovate and outpace the competition.
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*Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash