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Project pitfalls and how to avoid them

I had cause to reflect on failure this week, following a homemade pizza disaster, that my teenage daughter described as an “epic fail”. There were definitely a series of unfortunate events that led to a less than optimum outcome, however, the good news is, I learned three lessons: don’t forget the salt, use bread flour (not all-purpose) and a little less water in the dough.


In a business environment, where innovation is paramount, some level of failure has to be expected. One of history’s greatest innovators, Thomas Edison, was not unfamiliar with failing. His perspective was refreshing: “I’ve not failed, I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work” (I quoted this to my daughter but it didn’t seem to impress her). As Edison proved, the secret is not avoiding failure, but learning from it. 


As someone who has spent much of their career on new technology projects I have seen a range of successes and failures. With each new project, I attempt to take the past learnings a apply them to give the best possible chance of success. On this basis, here are my top 5 project pitfalls and what you can do to avoid them.


1. Unrealistic Expectations

One sure way to set your project up for failure is to have an unclear or misguided definition of success. Steve McConnell, author of “The Software Project Survival Guide” highlights this problem: “At least a third of all projects start with a scope, schedule and cost so far our of balance that the project has no chance of success”. I never cease to be amazed at how a project team full of intelligent and organised people with a clear focus and desire to succeed can still head off in different directions. To counter this, at the project kick-off I like to break the team into stakeholder groups and give them 30 minutes to define success from that group’s perspective. As well as an engagement exercise, it can often tease out inconsistencies that will become tripping points down the line. 

Lesson 1: Develop a shared definition of success


2. Leadership problems

Leading technology projects requires a specific blends of skills and experience. Leaders need to be in touch with the detail but not bogged down in the weeds. They set the framework for success but then get out of the way to let the team perform. They are comfortable sharing the glory, but also bearing responsibility when problems arise. From my experience, leaders need to have a good grasp of the details, but with an ability to see the bigger picture and to communicate well with the team, sponsor and senior leadership. High integrity, good relationships and a track record of results are key attributes.

Lesson 2: Select the right project leader


3. Uncontrolled scope

Assuming you have a clear definition of success and good leadership, things are destined for success. Well, not quite. There’s this important thing called “scope creep” that can derail even the best run projects. It goes like this: as the project progresses, new requirements tends to emerge, and these can, too easily, get bundled into the list of deliverables. You may resist this tendency by having a fixed scope that cannot be moved, however this can end up with a outcome that misses one ore more project objectives. It takes a deft touch at times to decide where to allow the scope to expand and when to lock things down. Having good project governance and change management processes are important, as is open communication with stakeholders.

Lesson 3: Allow scope changes carefully


4. Interpersonal Issues

People are critical to the success of any project - motivated, talented, hard working people. Developing and maintaining team morale can be tricky, particularly when the project deliverables are looming and the pressure increases. At these times interpersonal frictions can easily surface and increase the risk of project failure. Having an open dialog with team, regular 1-2-1s and team meetings are important to identify issues early. I have used Pulse survey tools more recently (e.g. OfficeVibe: www.officevibe.com) and these have been great at measuring morale and getting a warning of escalating tensions. Good leaders will intervene at these times and steady the ship, identifying what changes may be needed to keep things on track.

Lesson 4: Develop an open culture where people are free to share ideas and concerns.


5. Unforeseen circumstances

Even the best run projects can succumb to unforeseen issues that may derail or cause problems. Corporate restructures, senior leadership changes, strategy reviews can often change the environment and lead to closure or rescoping of a project. It’s hard to be prepared for every eventuality and often you have to deal with these issues as they arise. However, good planning can help anticipate some scenarios and mitigate the effects e.g. having clear exit and transition clauses for suppliers and subcontractors. 

Lesson 5: Consider and plan for possible scenarios that may impact the project


So, wishing you luck in your next project and hopefully avoiding some of these common pitfalls. As for me, I hope to learn from the past and avoid any more epic pizza failures!

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