At the Warehouse, we run regular courses on "Managing successful projects". I often get asked to provide support for these courses on behalf of the executive, by welcoming the participants and leading one of the sessions. The irony is that the session they always get me to lead is "What leads to project failure"? During this session we interactively identify why projects fail. There are many reasons why projects can fail. However, I always emphasise what I believe to be two key causes of project failure.
The first is sponsors who are not active champions for the project. I tell our participants that yes; I and my executive colleagues are one of your biggest risks. Normally this is not because we do not believe in the project or that they are inherently bad leaders. Often it is because we try and do too much too quickly and simply run out of time.
If you have issues and your sponsor is not willing to provide the time and support that you need to resolve issues or align resources effectively for your project, then the project manager needs to have a conversation with the sponsor to resolve this issue.
The potential resolutions are many and varied, however you need to consider the possibility that the project should be stopped or put on hold until it can be given priority. Better to stop early than muddling through with the likelihood of ultimate failure.
The second major cause of project failure is that we stop too soon. A huge effort goes into delivering the project; we get to go live and provide a small amount of post-go live support. We have a party to celebrate success and then leave looking for our next opportunity. We arrogantly assume that what we have implemented the first time is the total and ultimate solution.
We fail to measure on a consistent basis to ensure we get the benefits we expect and we spend virtually no time working with "the users" to ensure they successfully make the transition to the new process. As a result the change usually doesn't stick and we do not get the benefits we planned, and we wonder why the project didn't work.
To help reinforce the point, I compare a project to raising a child. There are three phases to each process and below is the short G-rated (approved for general viewing) version.
In stage one both are conceived to high expectations and celebrations. Everybody celebrates what will be and see only the benefits to come, and none of the hard work.
In the project world, we call stage two, implementation. In parenthood it is called pregnancy. During implementation, there is a lot of hard work that needs to be done. There are many reasons for that, however one of the main ones is we often expect people to carry on with our day jobs while at the same time supporting the project.
The culmination of stage two is "go live". Go lives are often momentous events where everyone is under immense pressure and as a result things are said that perhaps shouldn't be. The result of go live is, however, miraculous. In one a child is born. In the other a new way of business is given birth too and handed over to the expectant parents.
Stage three is where we raise the child to adulthood so they can effectively leave home and independently contribute to the world. In childhood this process takes years, about 18 years if you are lucky, and lots more if you are not! In projects, however, we spend little time "raising the child". In essence, we abandon the child to look after itself and seem to expect that everything will work out as it was intended.
In more corporate speak, we spend very little time institutionalising change from our projects. Usually it is a few weeks and we expect everything will work out. The reality is that often it doesn't.
If as a project manager, or an IS department, we want to add value to our organisations, then I believe we need to ensure the change sticks and delivers the benefits.
Metaphorically, all the value is realised from raising the child to adulthood, it is not in the conception and implementation. If we are truly interested in value creation, we need to stick around for and be active in the terrible twos, through puberty and on into adulthood. If we don't, the chances of everything working out decrease dramatically.
Owen McCall is CIO of The Warehouse. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and through his blog.
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