A Practical Approach to Achieving Project Success

Projects fail or fall short of meeting expectations at a startling rate. According to a 2017 survey by the Project Management Institute fewer than 60% of projects met time and cost objectives and nearly 50% of projects experienced scope creep. So what is it about managing a project that’s so challenging and what can you do to improve your chances of delivering your next project successfully?

Many books and articles have been written on why projects fail so this is clearly not a simple subject with an easy answer. Common sources of failure include changing business priorities, inadequate requirements definition, poor sponsor support, and many others. Projects are the way that businesses make improvements and they drive change that can be stressful if not managed carefully. Often there are multiple constituents with competing interests and differing ideas, assumptions and objectives. Even well-defined projects with clear requirements can be difficult to complete on time when resources juggle day-to-day tasks along with project activities.

Whether you’re new to project management or a certified pro there are always lessons to learn and new techniques to add to your toolset. In my experience I’ve found that the causes of project failures are more often due to poor strategy and planning rather than poor execution and so my personal toolset is very front-end heavy. Here are some of the practical and common sense strategies and techniques that I feel are important to start a project off on the right foot and keep it on track.

Defining objectives and benefits – If the project isn’t going to add value or people don’t understand the objectives then it’s in serious jeopardy before it even starts. As the project manager you don’t always have the ability to influence the projects that are selected but it is your responsibility to sharpen the objectives and benefits and manage the delivery of the benefits just as closely as the scope, schedule and costs.

Partnering with the executive sponsor – The relationship between the sponsor and project manager is a partnership based on mutual understanding and trust. Each plays a role in identifying, navigating, and clearing obstacles. As the project manager you should expect an active and engaged sponsor and it is partly your responsibility to establish and maintain this relationship to give your project the best chance for success.

Thorough project charter – The project charter is the single most important project artifact that you will create. This is where you will capture the essence of the project and the charter will be used to create a first impression for the project for most of the project stakeholders. There are many sources available for identifying the key elements of the charter and as a project manager you should adopt a format that you use consistently and refine over time.

Appropriate project strategy and methodology – Projects are unique and the approach that you choose to manage the project should be carefully matched to the challenges. Construction projects warrant highly detailed plans and rigid control, website development requires a more agile and iterative approach, and process improvement initiatives will have a high degree of change management that might best be tackled with a phased approach. Choosing the right strategy and methodology is critical to get your project off on the right foot.

Identifying and engaging the key stakeholders – Nothing will kill project momentum faster than a key stakeholder who hasn’t been consulted and has taken a defensive posture towards your project. It is your responsibility to identify all of the key stakeholders as early as possible and engage them appropriately. It’s far better to learn about the stakeholders concerns and ideas at the start of the project rather than at the end when it’s too late to react.

Identify the “can’t fail” tasks and manage them disproportionately – Not all tasks are created equal and your time as project manager must be focused on the most critical. Identifying these tasks are part of the project manager’s responsibility. Note that these aren’t always the same as the critical path tasks because the critical path only relates to one aspect of your projects four legs (schedule, budget, scope and benefits). One method of identifying these tasks is to apply the Pareto principle and answer the following question: What are the few things that must be done right to achieve the majority of the benefits?

Tap into the expert resources needed – Your chances for success go up dramatically if you have a ringer on your team. If you have any say at all over the resources assigned to your project get the ones that have the experience you need. If the most experienced resources aren’t available then get them involved anyway through whatever informal means you can. A good way to negotiate for key resources is to have them play an advisor role rather than a full-time role on the team. Getting part of a great resource is better than none.

Communicate up, down and sideways – Strong communication skills is a core competency for a project manager. You need to be comfortable documenting, writing, presenting and facilitating. Every person that you work with from the executive level to a junior programmer will have an impact on the success of your project and you need to be willing and able to communicate with all of them. The majority of your time as project manager should be spent on some type of communication task.

Admittedly this list is heavily focused on the planning and soft-skills side of project management. I don’t mean to suggest that the techniques to control and monitor your project aren’t important but if your project is set up for failure then no amount of critical path analysis, probability based risk management or detailed time and cost tracking will help. Focusing on these practical and common sense aspects of your project should help you improve your project success rate.

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