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Project Leadership

Getting projects completed on time and on budget is critical to any business.

This is so important that managing projects is a profession, with formal credentials.  This is for good reason; projects are undertaken with the expectation that they will lead to a worthwhile return on investment – but when projects fail to be delivered on time and on budget the implications are far beyond the obvious costs.  Consider these examples:


  • A product isn’t ready to launch and misses the opportunity to make a splash at the once-per-year tradeshow.

  • The new facility isn’t ready for production and newly hired and trained employees sit around burning cash.  

  • Business-critical software is delayed and the incumbent enterprise software contract has to be renewed, often at a premium.  

  • Investors hold off on the next round of funding and the startup simply fails to exist.  

  • Rocket launch windows are missed and the team literally has to wait for the planets to align again.


Despite these dire implications, a common statistic is that a whopping 70% of projects fail.  Here are some common reasons why. 


Lack of a common goal


It seems inconceivable that a project team wouldn’t have a common goal – after all, the very definition of a project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”.  Indeed, most team members would agree on the high level goal, but the challenges arise when there isn’t even a discussion, let alone agreement on how the team will address the triple constraints. 


The triple constraints are Time | Money | Scope.  Everyone wants to optimize all three but when tradeoffs are required, unless the team is crystal clear on which of these elements is most and least important, the result is that none of them are important and none are achieved.  Moreover, teams take unnecessary time making key decisions because they are not aligned on the triple constraint.  The lack of this alignment can even lead to friction as one team member believes success lies with minimizing cost while another believes time to completion is most important, while a third is continually trying to maximize features (aka Scope).  Unfortunately, when teams don’t understand that this dynamic is at play, they don’t realize that many of their disagreements would evaporate once this prioritization has been established. 


Definition of Done is Non-Existent


When planning for projects, the team often stops shy of defining what is meant by “complete”.  This is important because when a task is complete, it often means that there is a hand-off or dependency with other tasks and teammates.  When the deliverable doesn’t meet expectations, everyone is frustrated.  Consider the common deliverable of “completed design” – engineering proudly delivers a prototype that may not be pretty but has accomplished, after much effort, the technical goal.  Marketing is disappointed because they had anticipated a finished industrial design they expected to take to a trade show, Quality and Regulatory are looking for non-existent documentation and Manufacturing needs to do a design overhaul because what was delivered can only be lovingly-hand-crafted at a rate of one per day, not the 200 that is expected.  What should have been a moment of victory for the team, is a source of frustration and project overruns.


Unnecessary Unknown Unknowns 


Most of us can agree that working in teams is inefficient.  There is the very real overhead of coordination, interpersonal issues and communication misfires.  One of the big benefits of working in a team is that, when everyone’s knowledge and diverse experience is pooled together, there are fewer “unknown unknowns”.   Unfortunately, many teams don’t take full advantage of this pooled knowledge because they don’t engage in project risk analysis and as a result suffer from catastrophic implications of unexpected problems striking in a “clear blue sky”.  Rather than pause periodically to conduct risk planning, the team stays focused on execution only.  While it is true that experienced team members subconsciously make efforts to mitigate risks they are aware of, neither the risk nor the mitigation is well understood or effectively executed.   When a problem does occur, the lack of pre-planning results in lost time and money as the team scrambles to react.  


Imagine the example of a family camping trip.  While there is only a 40% chance of rain, if it should come, the family vacation could be seriously impacted. Perhaps one parent is quietly mitigating for the risk by keeping some things in the tent and the rain cover nearby.  However the rest of the family is not aware and clothing migrates to the picnic bench and the rain cover poles are used for a mock battle.  When the rain does come, the family’s reaction is chaotic and delayed.  Tempers flare, tears are shed and everyone is wet.  Had the family taken a few minutes to plan how they would react if the rain should come, successful execution of the plan would lead to exhilaration and pride, even as the rain came down.

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