One of the most frustrating things for anyone involved in project work is that even the best prepared plans can go astray.
Before the project is anywhere near completion it becomes clear that outcomes won’t meet expectations, resulting in a lack of motivation, stakeholder buy-in, and ultimately an even worse performance.
Sometimes projects fail as a result of pure bad luck, but these cases are rare. Projects are more likely to fail because of one or more of the following reasons:
The project was doomed from the start
- unrealistic plans and deadlines
- differing expectations amongst stakeholders
- insufficient buy-in and sponsorship from teams and management
- lack of analysis and understanding or the real problems the project is trying to resolve
The project suffers during implementation
- change of leadership or key team members
- unmanaged dependencies and risks
- inability or unwillingness to change and adapt to changing stakeholder needs (a particular problem with lengthy projects)
- general poor performance from project teams
The sad truth is, signs that projects are failing are often overlooked until it’s too late. By this time failure is inevitable and you’ve wasted time, money and resources as well as creating a sense of deflation in the project stakeholders.
In an ideal world all projects would be perfect from the start, based on accurate analysis and a complete understanding of expected outcomes. Progress and performance would be checked regularly and there would be in-built flexibility to cope with any changes in need that impacts on outcomes. But we all know that this utopia is hard to achieve and problems are almost guaranteed to arise.
So how can you recover a failing project?
The first, and most important thing is to not bury your head in the sand. Projects won’t correct themselves and the longer you leave it the harder it is to pull performance round within current restrictions.
At Smart Tips, we often work with clients to recover their projects. Whilst each solution is tailor made to the unique needs of that particular situation, the steps and principles behind them are the same. The aim of each recovery mission is to deliver value quickly whilst reducing the risk of future failures.
How we do it
The first step in project recovery is to perform a brief project assessment. This covers four key areas:
- Foundations: What the project was supposed to deliver in terms of benefits, goals and vision.
- Environment: Who and what is involved – and how. We look at the stakeholders, users and governing bodies and understand their relationship to the project. We’ll also consider the constraints and critical dependencies involved.
- Resources: In particular we look at the project team and understand their culture, skills and how they contribute to the project.
- Status: What has been achieved so far, how the project is organised and what controls are in place.
This assessment lets us see what went wrong, why, and, most importantly, what needs to be done to correct it. For each of the four areas we identify the particular pain points and determine the root cause. In many instances the true cause is not the obvious one, for example, issues may arise because a project is built around the formal, documented processes of a business system but pay no attention to the informal, undocumented shortcuts and workarounds that the users actually perform but weren’t identified at the start.
With an understanding of why things went wrong we can create a roadmap for recovery. This is built from a prioritised backlog of tasks that fix the areas of highest value first so both tangible and morale boosting results are realised quickly, giving the team motivation for continued improvements. It is important that when we create the roadmap we focus on the future and put the past firmly behind us. Learning from mistakes is crucial but apportioning blame does nothing to improve performance and prevent future problems.
As part of the roadmap creation process we’ll identify KPIs to measure future performance. We also leave your team with the tools and skills to self-correct should process stumble again. This final point is very important to us. Throughout our consultation with project teams we look at more than just recovering the project. We assess what skills, training or processes should be implemented throughout that team to ensure you are capable of monitoring, correcting and delivering exemplary projects in the future. To support this we also offer coaching for teams once the consultation is complete to make sure you are fully equipped to optimise future performance.
Problems in projects are unavoidable – it’s what you do when these problems arise that makes the difference between success and failure. It’s essential you understand not only what has gone wrong but also why it’s happened. With this knowledge you can equip your team and your organisation to recover that particular project and ensure better performance on all future ones as well.