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Saturday, March 14, 2015

When Projects Derail

     Do 30 percent of projects really fall short of requirements? Or is it 40 percent, 50? 60? Are the projects running over budget . . . ‘way over? Missing deliverable dates . . . by a lot?
     The reports often are more anecdotal than scientific, for good reason: How can you accurately measure what never was reliably established to start with?
     This is not necessarily about requirements and estimates, which often are precise and properly done. They are the source of comparisons between what was intended and what actually was accomplished, but they may well not be the cause of the overruns and shortfalls.
     A frequent reality of project execution is that the ground under those requirements and estimates is shifty and unreliable.
     Life in such a world can be frustrating for the project manager.

     When key team members get yanked back to their functional jobs to serve higher priorities, the functional managers who do the yanking usually outrank the project manager.
     The same is true when individual contributors report little or no progress as deliverable dates slide by. They nominally remain assigned to the project, but they have other things to do.
     And then there frequently is evaporation of financing, staffing and executive support as top-level interest wanes, or is transferred to some shiny new prospect.
     When projects are derailed, there usually is some combination of such factors on the track.

     One central issue determines the stability of the very foundation of the project.
     Do they mean it? REALLY mean it?
     There are numerous immediate triggers for project variances, but there is a single root cause for many of the most serious and persistent of them. It could be seen as the elephant in the room that everyone studiously fails to notice. Maybe people honestly do not identify it as the major barrier to project success.
     The overriding question refers to those who have the authority to order projects into being, and who provide its resources, human and material. They are the ones who make definitive judgments about project progress and change, and the acceptability of various efforts and practices.
      Those powerful people control the circumstances in which the project manager is responsible for creating success.
     We all know that, when someone really important cares about a project, it gets what it needs. The resources show up on time and in proper quantity. The middle managers are eager to provide their people and materials.  Life is good in the project, as long as the project manager keeps an open and warm relationship with that high-level sponsor.
     Too bad that doesn’t happen with every project, right?

     That is exactly right. As a matter of fact, it should happen with every project. It is at the heart of the skill set of the truly successful project manager. Securing sufficient muscle at the top of the organization is a prime item on the management priority list.
     That doesn’t happen often enough, because too few project managers make it their business so pursue it and nail it down at the very beginning. There is too much attention to process and structure, and too little establishment of a firm foundation, in the initiation of too many projects.
     The project manager usually has a “honeymoon” period as he/she is designated to head up a project.
     That period is of indefinite length (and often is extremely brief), but it is the golden moment for the project manager: “Thank you for this opportunity. I assure you I will bring in a fine result under budget and ahead of schedule. I’ll be back tomorrow with an initial project plan.”
     That plan, necessarily in draft form, lays out the major activities and attendant resources that will be required – and the organizational support elements that must be provided.
     It includes preliminary risk assessments, prominently featuring the specifics of the sponsorship involvement that will continue throughout the project. Functional managers are to be fully informed of how present executive authority will be behind the project manager.

     This is politics. It requires the project manager to possess and exercise analytical, organizational and persuasive skills. Without political success, the project may well be off the track before it leaves the station.

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