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How to 'failure-proof' your projects

How to 'failure-proof' your projects

Don’t neglect the basics – they are the cause of most mishaps, not complex or unforeseen problems.

What is the cost of project failure? Ask Gustav Humbert, the former CEO of Airbus. There was a $6.1 billion profit loss for its parent company, millions in late delivery fees, industry embarrassment, and, oh yes, his job! Type “project failure” into your favourite search engine, and you will find out how common blown budgets, missed deadlines and unmet expectations really are!

What is the cost to your career and your business if your projects fail? It may not be as unfortunate as for Gustav, but in an increasingly competitive market with tighter timeliness and margins, "she’ll be right" is not an acceptable project strategy.

As management consultants who have rescued troubled projects across a variety of industries, my team and I have seen why projects go off the rails and what can be done to avoid this. This experience has led me to the surprising conclusion; The vast majority of projects that fail do not do so because of complex or unforeseen problems, but rather because of a neglect of the basics!

This is good news for savvy business leaders, because there are several actions that they can take to reduce the chance of their projects going pear-shaped. Below are my top 10.

The top 10 ways to “failure-proof” your projects:

Confirm that the project is aligned with your organisational strategy. The goal of a project should be to meet a business need, which is determined by the business plan to achieve the organisational strategy. If there is no clear evidence of how a project will meet the strategy, then it is a waste of precious time and resources.

Establish strong governance. Who’s providing executive oversight and removing roadblocks for the project? Are they remaining strategic, or delving into the detail? For project teams to be successful, they need senior management to champion the project and make sure it remains within the strategy, policies, and standards of the organisation, as well as project parameters such as scope, budget, and schedule.

Clearly define the project before you start. The earlier you catch an error, the cheaper and easier it is to fix. One of the common mistakes that organisations make is jumping straight into planning project activities without first gaining agreement as to what the project is expected to achieve and how they will know they have achieved it. Key factors such as the Goal, Objectives, Deliverables, Estimated Budget, Acceptance Criteria, and Risks should be defined at the beginning, so that all parties go into the project with their eyes wide open and cannot deny it later further down the track.

Identify how success will be measured and maintained once the project is over. Too often the benefits that are used to justify the project in the business case are not measured or maintained once the project is over. The savvy leader will confirm how the benefits will be realised and incorporated into ongoing business as usual.

Plan it out. Although number 8 wire works great on the farm, it does not work so well on multi-million dollar ERP implementations! The time you spend planning will return many fold in delivery time and risk.

Encourage your teams to raise the issue of risks. I always tell my teams that I love bad news - early! The savvy leaders encourage their teams to identify risks as early as possible so the maximum time is available to resolve them. I have never understood, and have little patience for, those who try to deny risk rather than deal with it head on – it is always more painful the longer it goes un-addressed.

Get the right project management skills for the job. It takes more than being able to fill-out MSProject and a few templates to make projects successful. It takes specific project management knowledge and skills, plus the key ingredients of leadership and communication.

Form a balanced team. I have seen organisations try to have the managers plan the project rather than the do-ers. Anyone who has managed staff will tell you that the way something is supposed to work, and how the process actually does, can be very different. Without the subject-matter experts involved, key information will be missed which can be detrimental to the outcome.

Use your consultants effectively. Consultants bring value when temporary, external, independent expertise is required. However, it is wise to look for ways to maximise the long-term benefit of the engagement such as how it will enhance internal capabilities.

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! It is always better to over-communicate than to under-involve! Is it really that confidential? Most times it is not. Rumours, worry, and mistrust grow in the soil of ambiguity.

Get the basics right and your project’s results will be right as well.

Chris Pope is the director of The Valde Group, a management consultancy, and can be contacted at chris@valde.co.nz.

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