6 reasons projects fail (and what to do about it)

Succeed by clarifying expectations, addressing risks and more

If the stadium you’re building or app you're developing or company-wide retreat you’re planning goes off without a hitch, guess what? You’re part of a minority that delivers projects on time and on budget – a unicorn of the corporate world, sporting a horn gilded with reserve funds that you managed not to spend.

Then there’s the rest of us – almost seven out of 10 – who, well, aren’t quite so magical.

There are myriad reasons for this inability to deliver, says Kevin Whelan (Engineering Design and Drafting Technology ’92), program coordinator for NAIT’s Continuing Education Productivity Enhancement Services, which includes courses on project management.

“Our job as a project manager is to understand them and put in place ways to avoid them,” he adds.

Doing that takes a special set of skills that aren’t just about watching clocks and crunching numbers. Here, Whelan walks us through those hitches to make projects a little less daunting and success a little less mythical.

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Problem 1: Unclear expectations

question and check marks

Solution: From a project’s start, says Whelan, “listen – and this is from the Dr. Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – with the intent to understand from the other person's point of view.”

Strive to truly hear whomever is offering direction, then confirm that you’ve heard by verbalizing  your understanding of the project. If it’s not right, Whelan says, get clarity.

Problem 2: Lack of trust

fist bump, woman and man's hands

Solution: No team can function without trust in its manager or in each other, says Whelan. The foundation of that trust is the ground rules around conduct and interactions set at the start of a project. They might include things like the way meetings are conducted (e.g., be present – no phones) or being able to respectfully challenge each other’s ideas (e.g., no talking over one another).

“Don’t go in and tell the team what the ground rules are.”

“Don’t go in and tell the team what the ground rules are,” says Whelan. “Sit around the table and say, ‘All right team, let’s talk about what our ground rules should be. Who has suggestions?’”

Problem 3: Ignoring the risks

cyclists running away from train coming through tunnel

Solution: Before starting a project, Whelan calls in the “murder board.” This is a group of people who have been through similar projects and can share all the ways it will fail. It will be a festival of negativity, but invaluable.

“When we’re done, that list becomes our risk register,” says Whelan. Maybe it includes a sharp rise in the price of steel over the course of the project, or a loss of key staff members, or a pandemic. A project team can then plan a response for each eventuality, with each being assigned to an individual member to resolve so others continue working.

“If you’re going to spend time on anything, spend it on your risk management plan,” says Whelan.

Problem 4: Unrealistic timelines

hourglass on a laptop

Solution: Take the project apart and examine the tasks. How long will each one take? Don’t guess. Do research. Ask those who’ve done them before. Then add them up.

“When we take all those individual chunks of work and start to calculate it out, people are always shocked at how much longer a project is going to take over what they thought,” says Whelan.

Problem 5: Ignoring basic human needs

man removing glass and speaking at office meeting

Solution: You need to periodically check on progress, says Whelan, but you also need to check in with the people who are moving it forward, and get their feelings about the project.

Having already established ground rules to ensure mutual respect, “we can have open and honest dialogue with each other,” says Whelan.

“Talk about what’s working well and what’s not. If it’s good and we all agree, let’s reinforce it. If it’s not, let’s try to fix it.”

Problem 6: Misunderstanding your role as project manager

race car crew changing tires

Soluton: As a project manager, says Whelan, “I’m not the font of all knowledge in the world. There are lots of things I don’t know. That’s why I need a team. We’re getting our work done through the efforts of other people, so we need the people we're working with to want to get the work done.”

That’s why a project manager’s focus needs to be on the macro scale, not micro.

“Your job is to provide an environment in which those people want the project to succeed," says Whelan. "They want the team to succeed. They want each other to succeed.”

For that reason, and obvious other ones, “Lead how you would like to be led. Manage how you would like to be managed.”

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