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The Five Warning Signs of Strategic Project Failure – And How to Avoid Them

Strategy ExecutionSometimes the project you end up with is not the project you set out to complete. If this is a result of intentional decisions backed by careful analysis of their impact, then great – but all too often it’s not.

Project managers are in a unique position to identify when personal agendas, scope creep or insufficient communications are actually changing the face of a project without anyone realising it.

While the risks associated with successfully managing and executing a project are virtually endless in number, there are the following five warning signs to watch for:

1. The project is not aligned with the company’s strategic goals

Business leaders make choices to maximise the finite resources they have. The initiatives they choose to invest in – in order to progress the business forward – must align to the business strategy.

Even if a project starts out in alignment with the strategy, it can deviate from that alignment through its lifecycle – if not managed carefully.

Warning signs that indicate a project has fallen out of alignment include:

  • Executive sponsor loses interest or goes off project
  • Budgets and resources come into question
  • Team members are taken off the team for other initiatives

Solutions for these are:

  • Defining the project’s business value in terms of the company’s strategic goals
  • Working closely with the project manager to articulate this connection to the project team
  • Periodically checking in to ensure that the alignment continues.

2. There is no clear vision of what success looks like

Too often the measure of success for a given initiative is on-time and on budget. If those are the only key performance indicators (KPIs) for a project, it opens the door for a project to deviate from the strategy, or to miss the mark on expected outcomes.

It is critical that the objectives for a project are clearly defined from the outset, aligned to business objectives and communicated, in order to manage expectations of the project team, executive sponsor and end-user.

Warning signs:

  • The executive sponsor takes a “if we build it, they will come” attitude
  • You have a hard time explaining/defending what it is you’re trying to accomplish
  • There is no return on investment (ROI) or other metrics associated with the project

Solutions:

  • Clearly define and communicate the desired results of the project, including qualitative and quantitative measures of success
  • Make sure status updates track against these KPIs

3. There is no clear schedule or budget for resources and people

When selecting an initiative as a critical component driving business strategy, you must set that project up for success.

That starts with investment: as part of the scoping of requirements, a clear budget for the project needs to be set, with resources assigned accordingly. It is not enough to expect that it will happen – it must be made to happen. By defining the investment and resources for a project, so also will the expectations on project team member’s contributions be set.

Indicators that a project was not properly resourced include:

  • High turnover of team members
  • Exasperation and ultimatums from sponsoring executives
  • Focus on output (how much is getting done) vs. outcome (where do we stand on achieving our goals)

Solutions:

  • Break the project down into easily measurable tools
  • Utilise the triple constraint (score, resources, time) to determine budget and schedules 

4. The scope of the project keeps changing

Scope creep is an unfortunate occurrence on all too many projects. In some cases, change in scope can be a sign that the project was not properly scoped at the outset. In others, it indicates that the project and its resources – both financial and human – are not being properly managed against the work being done.

Some root causes of scope creep to watch for:

  • Too many chefs in the kitchen: everyone is promoting their own agenda
  • Confusion among team members about what to do next

Solutions:

  • Refer back to the project plan that defines scope, budget and schedules and request project status updates include reference to how the project is tracking against scope and objectives
  • Use strategic goals to prioritise acceptable scope changes and eliminate unnecessary or detrimental ones
  • Document scope changes and analyse each one’s impact on schedule and budget, sharing information with stakeholders

5. Deadlines are being missed and budgets exceeded

Mismanaged or out of control projects are fairly easy to spot. But getting an initiative back on track is not nearly as simple or obvious.

What to watch out for is self-evident:  the project is behind schedule and/or over budget

Solutions:

  • Is budget and schedule realistic for the project’s intended scope?
  • In addition to managing the project team, manage team-members’ bosses, the project sponsor and the project sponsor’s boss
  • Re-analyse the project plan for errors and or adjust for unforeseen circumstances
  • Create and utilise a risk-management plan that anticipates and provides plans to mitigate common risks

It’s not enough to give project managers a mandate to simply manage the project. They must develop the hard or technical skills (planning, strategy, alignment, analysis) and the soft or relational skills (influence, communication) to keep all stakeholders aware of the project’s strategic importance – as well as enlist their help should things fall off track.

Line of business leads need to take responsibility to ensure that strategy is articulated, project managers and project teams are aligning to that strategy and that you are properly investing in the initiatives needed to deliver on the objectives invested in.

 In or Out: Assessing and Aligning Resources and Initiatives Against Strategic Priorities

For more on the five warning signs of failure for strategically important projects  – and how to avoid them – read the full article, In or Out: Assessing and Aligning Resources and Initiatives Against Strategic Priorities.

 

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About Rebecca Leitch

Rebecca Leitch
Rebecca Leitch is a marketeer at TwentyEighty Strategy Execution - focused on bringing new project management content for the PM community.

One comment

  1. KAZI SAIFUL HOQUE, CBAP, PMP

    Thank you Rebecca for your write up identifying major causes of a project failure with probable solutions. Management of Triple constraints( Scope, Time and Cost) is really a very challenging one. Your article will guide project managers to give adequate attention to all these four key factors working behind failure.

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