Considering that only 34% of projects succeed, a statistic that is well documented in the realm of project management, it is important to be able to identify not only the key elements that lead to failed projects, but also identifying when you can and can’t turn a project around.
In a PM Hut article by Rob Betcher, he identifies numerous causes to the high project failure rate. Betcher states that politics is the number one project killer and noted the prevalence of politics, agendas and back door deals within project and program management. He also identified unrealistic expectations, project managers having to deal with clients under the delusion that their site is unique and different, or that their industry requires decades worth of knowledge and using some proprietary form of project management that does not abide by any industry standards as causes of project failure.
From this list alone, it is clear that there are a number of contributing factors to the failure of a project, but they also help identify those elements needed to give a project any chance of success. As Betcher declares, one of the most important aspects of getting a project turned around is having realistic expectations. Without these being in line with what is achievable, a project will have no hope of being completed on time or within budget. These expectations can also be that of the client about the uniqueness of their project or industry, meaning that communication is key to also aligning these expectations up front. Betcher identifies managing expectations as the first step to turning a project around. This also is a critical step for giving a project any real chance of success to begin with.
Betcher listed five steps necessary for turning projects around.
- Managing expectations
- Hiring qualified staff
- Get a centralized, well-organized document repository in place
- Educate staff
- Review all forecasts, project schedules and budgets
Hiring qualified staff obviously makes sense for ensuring that they know how to successfully carry out the project, but another important point is to remove any disruptive forces from the project. Betcher touches on this point stating that “qualified staff can do nothing as long as there are unqualified staff members destroying their work as fast as they can create it.” However, whether the staff is qualified or not, one may still be a destructive force, so the second step to turning a project around should really be removing any destructive or incapable forces from a project. Hiring qualified staff is a step to be taken before a project is started or once destructive forces have been removed.
Having a centralized, well-organized document repository is something as a PPM software company that we see as a driving force behind many organization’s needs for buying a PPM tool. This central repository for information not only helps to fight disorganization, but it also creates transparency and in turn greater accountability and consistency. Putting this in place, however, will involve a number of other steps, which must be supported and led by a highly-visible project sponsor to enforce its use. This requires leadership.
Leadership is also an important element to achieving Betcher’s fourth step, which is educating staff. Yes, staff can be trained by others; however changing behavior and ensuring best practices are adhered to will require leadership.
Without a doubt, Betcher’s fifth step to review all forecasts, project schedules and budgets is important, but perhaps needs to be included in step one with managing expectations. These should directly relate to setting and managing expectations and, therefore, should be part of the first step.
The critical steps to turn a project around would then become:
- Align expectations with reviewed forecasts, project schedules and budgets
- Remove any destructive or incapable forces from a project and replace with qualified staff
- Ensure leadership enforces the use of a central repository for information
- Provide staff with necessary project and systems training and have leadership enforce processes and procedures
However, perhaps it is best not try turning some of these projects around, but rather terminate them. Betcher mentioned the importance of Leadership to stop staff from doing things out of the realm of project management best practices or repeating behavior that has a long track record of failure, but does not delve into the possibility of their being a lack of leadership and specifically project sponsor support. If a project sponsor is nowhere to be seen, then turning the project around becomes an even harder task. Without the Leadership that we highlighted in the previous four steps, you may, in fact, be better ending the project and focusing on others that you will at least have a chance of completing successfully. With this in mind, Leadership should really be the first step in determining whether or not you can turn a project around.