The APQC Blog

Make Project Management More Successful

It’s a sad truth that sometimes projects fail. This article written by Duncan Haughey, courtesy of the Process Excellence Network (PEX), examines five common reasons for project failure and suggests how to overcome them.

Successful Project Management is Not Rocket Science

There is no worse person to be than the project manager at the end of a failed project. As an IT project manager, I have experienced that feeling, and I can tell you it's not nice. IT projects are particularly difficult to manage. In fact, there really aren't any IT projects, just projects that have elements of IT.

The trouble with these projects is that often an organization is doing something that hasn't been done before—it’s unproven or cutting edge. Customers expect a good result not excuses, even though projects are frequently a journey into the unknown. Take, for example, construction of a new bridge. People have been building bridges for hundreds of years and know how to do it. We understand how things are going to happen, in what order and the expected result. This is rarely the case with IT (or process improvement) projects.

Avoiding common pitfalls of project management is not rocket science, it is simply a case of taking some sensible measures. Here are five killer mistakes of project management and some suggestions for avoiding them.

Who Owns the Project?

The Mistake: The nature of projects is change, which often encounters resistance. People don't like change, so they need to know why it’s necessary and what benefits it will bring. In order for a project to succeed, it needs senior management support because that will propel the project forward—without it, the project will struggle.

The Solution: Ensure top-down backing from senior management with direct communication from the sponsor to the stakeholders. The message must be, "We are serious. This thing is going to happen so you are either with us or you are not." Beware of those who are not. As project manager, ensure that the sponsor does not take the project over and become the de facto project manager.

Getting Users Involved

The Mistake: Lack of user input and involvement is the recipe for a bad project. This can either be because of the "we know what you want" mentality from the IT department or lack of interest from the customer. Either way, it must be avoided.

The Solution: Understand the customer's requirements before proposing any solution. Often IT is blinded by the latest, newest available technology and tries to shoehorn the requirements into it. On the other hand, customers interact with IT to guarantee that requirements have been fully defined. Communicate with all stakeholders to gather all requirements, then continue to work together for the duration of the project.

Stopping Scope Creep

The Mistake: Scope creep may be the cause of more project failures than anything else. Not knowing exactly what a project is aiming to deliver or setting off in a direction in a fit of enthusiasm is a recipe for failure.

The Solution: Ensure that the business case, requirements, and scope are clearly defined and documented. Communicate them to the stakeholders, then have them sign them off. Stick to the scope. If changes are required, put them through a change management process where they are documented, justified, and verified.

Managing Expectations

The Mistake: Often there is an expectation that IT is like a magic wand waved and a miracle occurs. During a technology project, expectations can inflate to a ridiculous degree. The project manager must manage expectations to keep them at a sensible level.

The Solution: Break a project into smaller pieces or phases. By dividing IT projects into smaller deliverables, several positive outcomes can occur. This helps manage expectations by making frequent deliveries that demonstrate what the technology can really deliver and it meets the customers’ expectations by giving visibility and reinforcement of project objectives.

Understanding the Lingo

The Mistake: Have you ever stood next to a group of IT (or process) professionals and wondered what they were talking about? It can be whole new language. The pitfall comes when the customer and IT think they are speaking the same language, but, in fact, they aren’t. This leads to IT delivering what they understood, but it was, in fact, something entirely different.

The Solution: Communication problems are a challenge. Frequent communication and a close working relationship with the customer will help. Often it’s useful to have a person on the project with a foot in both camps: someone who understands the business and IT equally well. If this type of person isn’t available, then have two people, one from each camp, who work closely and share information.

And finally...

In 1995 The Standish Group surveyed IT executive managers for their opinions about why projects succeed. The three major reasons include: user involvement, executive management support, and a clear statement of requirements. Concentrating on these three aspects alone will give projects a good chance of success. Don't become the victim of a failed project. Put measures in place that will ensure your success. After all it's not rocket science!


What has been your experience? Would you add anything to this list? Now check out APQC’s latest best practices report Effective Project Management Offices. We have new insights into project management strategy, practices, technology and automation, and measures and reporting.