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Projects failing? Why? Why? WHY?!

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Jun 24, 2017 9:19:00 AM

why projects fail.pngMost people assume that if you want to reduce project failure rates the place to look is in project implementation. Of course improving implementation, upskilling project managers and putting in place project methodologies all help.

Many people are surprised, however, to hear so many experts saying that weak Project prioritisation is the root cause of much project failure. In fact, Amanda Oakenfull of Deloitte reckons the prioritization and planning process is the root cause of all project failure.

Let's dig into that a little to see why.

Why? Why? Why?

A few years ago, my then-6-year-old son noticed the hands on my watch glowing as I turned off the light at bed-time. "Why does your watch glow, dad?"

"Because it's got glowing paint," I responded.

"Why does the paint glow?" he asked.

"Becuase it's captured some light and now it's letting that light go again, son." I said, confident that was the end of the matter.

"But why, dad?" 

Now, as those of you who've read a few of my blogs may know, I did a physics degree about a million years ago, so this line of questioning was never going to end well...  20 minutes later, my wife burst in ("It's well past lights-out!" - pause -  "What on earth are you doing?") just as I got to the good bit in the explanation of the quantum mechanical causes of glowing watch-hands... using a set of book shelves and a handful of Moshi Monsters

Oh yeah!

The point is, the question "Why?" is seldom as simple as it seems... and project failure is no different.

The link between project prioritisation and project failure

Some of the leading causes of project failure are the lack of adequate resources, poor executive sponsorship and scope creep.

The root cause of each of these failure modes is in the prioritisation process. 

I never fail to be amazed at how often I hear from PMOs that the prioritisation processalways seems to select more projects than they can deliver. The result of this is simple. Project resources are spread thinly, they end up time slicing which makes them inefficient and ultimately projects fail, run over time, over budget or don't deliver on business requirements.

In other words there is a direct link between Project prioritisation, delivery capacity and project failure.

Sort out the prioritisation process so that you can select the most valuable projects that fit within capacity. It sounds simple, but without the right support and tools this can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Why? because we're human. (Link)

Don't take my word for it.  Mike Hannan, PMO author and coach to PMO leaders says, " overloading your team dramatically reduces their efficiency. Stretched resources not only lead to project failure but also mean that yours is not a fun place to work."

So what about executive sponsorship? Executive engagement is partly a function of skills and many articles on executive engagement focus on training. I would argue however that a much bigger problem is motivation and capacity. Your Executives or a skill pool like any other and have limited capacity to support projects. If you ignore these capacity constraints  then everything I said in the preceding two paragraphs applies here as well. Your executives just won't do a good job because they're spread too thin.

But motivation is also a factor and if the projects you select are fundamentally not aligned with the strategy of the business, then ultimately executive interest will falter.  The most people assume that because executives are selecting the portfolio that means the portfolio is well aligned with their interests but I can tell you categorically this is not the case.

Dr. Lynda Bourne, an expert on Stakeholder Engagement says, "Gaining and maintaining the support and commitment of stakeholders requires a continuous process of engaging the right stakeholders at the right time and understanding and managing their expectations."

In one extreme example I saw the project selection process indicating that around 80% of the projects were absolutely top priority and had to get done. When we dug into the portfolio, we found that 30% of the portfolio was actually obsolete. Much of the rest was not particularly aligned with strategy and overall Project sponsorship was quite weak.

So the root cause here is in the prioritisation process. The wrong projects getting through, ones that are not well aligned with strategy, and so executives lose interest in them. Fix the prioritisation process and your projects will maintain their interest and that support.

Following a good process can make all the difference. Something like the analytic hierarchy process (AHP) both ensures alignment and strong buy in from the stakeholders. That's why you put it at the heart of our core product for project prioritisation.

Another good thing about AHP is that it makes very clear what the goals of each project are. This means that project manager has a value based framework to help reduce scope creep. Very often change requests are things that people would like but that are not critical to delivering on the vision of the project. If those goals are not absolutely clear at front, it can be difficult for the PMs to push back on change requests.

I would always recommend that you bake this right into the project selection process. Capture and document the goals of the project and then put them at the heart of Execution. This, in fact, was one of the key drivers for us to develop our portfolio kanban which lets you document your project drivers must have requirements etc. We have made a free version of this kanban available for anyone.

I ran a webinar on this topic recently. I talked not only these root causes and also talked a little about some tools that can help change things. We're making that webinar available, for a limited time via this link. I hope you enjoy it!

How to improve project success rates.