According to the PMI’s Pulse of the Profession, 52% of projects completed in the last 12 months experienced scope creep. This is a significant increase from 43% reported five years ago.
The Project Management Institute also reports that in the projects that were deemed failures, the following causes were contributing factors: change in project objectives (37%), inaccurate requirements gathering (35%), inadequate vision or goal for project (29%), failure to identify opportunities and risks (29%), inaccurate cost estimates (28%), and poor change management (28%) amongst others.
Although 93% of organisations report that they use standardised project management practices, only 23% say that these practices are used throughout the organisation. This somewhat explains why many organisations still struggle to deliver projects successfully. When standardised project management practices aren’t used, it should come as no surprise that projects are failing. But there is more to the story.
It is not simply a question of whether organisations use project management practices, but also how they use them. Even in organisations, where project managers have been trained and know what needs to get done, they may not be effective at implementing the practices that have been defined How come?
In my experience, many project managers procrastinate and are too busy putting out fires to focus on the basics. It takes great dedication to proactively implement and tailor project management practices so that they add the most value to the organisation and to the client. In many cases it’s easier to work at a surface level, dealing with immediate issues and reacting to requests from the team and from executives. It is also not uncommon that project managers follow a process for the sake of compliance without attaching much meaning to it.
That’s not ideal. The practices we implement need to add value rather than being a ticking boxing exercise. Risk management, for instance, has little value if all we do is log the risks and assign ownership and mitigating actions, without subsequently following up and taking these risks into consideration when planning, estimating and executing the project. Similarly, the project charter and the project plan have little value if they haven’t been produced in collaboration with the team and if the stakeholders aren’t fully bought into them.
Some of the many ways in which we may be jeopardising our strategic projects, by getting the basics wrong, are listed below. I have deliberately generalised and exaggerated to make it obvious what the process-related mistakes are that we should watch out for.
- Not producing a business case: Failure to see the bigger commercial picture and assume that the sponsor or someone more senior has already produced a strong and viable business case and that costs and benefits stack up. Many project managers hold themselves back engaging at a strategic level as they feel it’s the sponsor’s job. But taking part responsibility for producing the business case can be a smart move that helps the project manager to step up and Bridge the Gap Between Strategy and Delivery.
- Compromising the planning stage: Succumbing to pressure from senior executives who believe that the project can be delivered quicker if the planning stage is reduced. Unfortunately, project managers rarely push back on senior executives who are impatient and who don’t want to wait for the planning stage to be completed before executing begins. Needless to say that this mistake often results in rework as well as time and budget overruns later down the line.
- Producing a poor project initiation document or project charter: Leaving out an important detail about what will be delivered and how it will be delivered, such as scope, requirements, design, risks and issues, success criteria, roles and responsibilities, quality, costs, resourcing, and communication. This mistake happens when project managers see planning as a tick-boxing exercise rather than a fundamental prerequisite for successful project execution where all building blocks need to be analysed and accounted for.
- Unclear scope and requirements: Producing too vague a scope description, requirements that are too high level and omitting to specify what is out of scope. Could this be a result of too little emphasis on good business analysis and project managers not having sufficient business knowledge? Something is clearly astray when 52% of projects experience scope creep.
- Lack of change management: Not having a clear process for assessing and approving changes allowing the scope to spiral out of control. Unfortunately, change management is seen as red tape on many projects and therefore not paid sufficient attention to. But tracking the changes that are put forward by the stakeholders is essential if we want to stay in control of time, cost, quality, risk, and benefits.
- Stakeholder analysis: Failure to analyse the stakeholders and determining a stakeholder communication strategy. On any successful project, the project manager will be on top of who the most influential stakeholders are, how to communicate with them and how to gain their buy-in. Without a stakeholder strategy, it’s going to be very difficult to make effective decisions and to deliver a successful outcome to the project’s beneficiaries.
- Lack of collaborative planning: Not planning the project collaboratively and not seeing it as an opportunity to engage the team. Many project managers intuitively produce a plan in consultation with team members. But true collaboration is much more than consultation. It’s about building the plan together; brainstorming and problem-solving in a workshop setting where everyone feels heard and engaged.
- Poor governance: Not having a clear escalation process or a well-established steering committee that is summoned on a regular basis. It’s often a challenge for project managers to assert themselves and ensure that an effective governance process is established. If the sponsor and senior stakeholders aren’t coming to the table, the project should be temporarily halted to signal the importance of their involvement.
- Underestimating the project’s effort: Being too optimistic when providing estimates by accounting only for the sunny-case scenarios and leaving out contingency to cater for uncertainties. Underestimating a project is often a result of not having clarified in detail what the requirements are. Developing prototypes and proof of concepts before a final estimate is submitted can help project managers lower overall risk and increase the accuracy of their estimates
- Mechanical risk management process: Failure to turn analysis into action, with risk registers and risk reports being produced and filed, but with these having little or no effect on how the project is actually undertaken. Project managers need to make risk management part of their weekly routine. It has to be incorporated into team meetings, with the aim of increasing the team’s overall negative as well as positive risk awareness.
- Lack of project reviews: Failure to effectively review and learn from project mistakes and successes. This was discussed at length in last months post on How to Continuously Review Your Strategic Project. It’s all about learning in the experience rather than from the experience.
- Lack of team definition: Failure to treat the team as an entity that needs to be defined and where rules of engagement need to be agreed. This last mistake is one of the big, but less obvious oversights in project management. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet common practice to treat the team as a unit, which needs to be defined, stimulated and nurtured in order to create the best possible set-up for success. Without a well functioning team, it’s hard to imagine a well functioning project.
Take some time to reflect on the mistakes highlighted above.
How many of them have you seen other project managers make, and how many have you personally fallen victim of? What was the reason and in which ways can you help yourself and others avoid them in the future?
Proven project management practices are here to stay. Not in order that we can tick the box and get on to something more exciting. But in order that we can implement the practices that add real value and help us deliver the outcomes and benefits that our clients expect. Look at what you can do to support your project, your organisation and maybe even your industry. We all have an obligation to spread our knowledge and to improve the world around us. Too many projects are failing, so be determined to set a good example and to do the right thing.
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