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Changing the perception of ‘failed’ projects

I have written before about the fact that some projects are stopped for good reasons. Businesses need to be very transparent when that happens to ensure all relevant parties understand why and, crucially, agree that it is the right thing to do. Communication within the organisation needs to be carefully managed so that all the key stakeholder groups receive the same message. This should cover:

  • why the decision was taken to stop the project
  • what will be done with the work completed to date: can it be revised?
  • what will happen next?

This last point is particularly important. The project was started for a reason: to respond to and resolve a specific business problem. If the project has failed to address that problem, it remains to be solved. Companies should be as clear as possible about what steps are going to be taken to continue to address and resolve that issue. The project’s customers will need to be assured that their issue has not been forgotten.

There will occasionally be situations where the project is stopped because the problem has simply gone away: for example, a change in the law, selling a subsidiary company or withdrawing a product from sale. However, these are rare. If it does happen, organisations should explain why the project is no longer necessary and attempt some transfer of learning so that employees who have invested their time and effort in the project do not see that this has gone to waste.

I’m not the person to advise on external communication about stopped or failed projects. An organisation’s PR department can better consider the media position and offer advice specific to the individual circumstances; just make sure you get them involved at the right time.

Given that predicting project outcomes is less than an accurate science, it isn’t surprising that some projects fail. This paper has looked at why, and also at why it is sometimes a good thing that projects are stopped. However, when projects start, managers don’t think about the possibility of failure: they are concerned with success.

Projects are different from business as usual because they do something different. The business as usual environment means you can take yesterday’s performance and use it as a reasonably accurate guide to what the situation will be tomorrow. Projects don’t work like that. You can’t take yesterday’s performance as a guide to anything, much less an accurate guide. That’s what makes managing projects so much fun, and also such a great challenge for organisations.


Why do projects fail?

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Failing projects

There must be a good reason why all these projects fail.  There is; in fact, there are many factors that contribute to project failure.  The UK Office of Government Commerce did a study that shows the main reasons that projects fail are:

  • lack of clear executive leadership (the ‘missing’ Sponsor)
  • poor processes for identifying and managing risks associated with the project
  • a gap between the Project team, often with technical expertise, and the rest of the business, who often don’t understand the nitty gritty details
  • failure to take into account and manage the fact that humans naturally dislike change and the impact this has on business processes and people
  • project durations that stretch over a year, as the business environment evolves rapidly.

Technology was one of the least likely reasons for project failure.  This shows us that the human implications of change are far more important than any IT system design.

There is plenty of academic research into why projects fail, and the opposite: what makes projects a success.  What is missing in the project management profession is a willingness for organisations to talk about why individual projects fail.  There is a difference to filling in an anonymous questionnaire for someone working in academia and coming out in public with details about why your project was a disaster.  Many of the case studies about project failure are publicly funded projects, which are accountable to taxpayers: the majority of the list in section 3 above are public projects.  The audit reports and inquiries are available for anyone to read, and while they are often on a big scale, there is a lot managers of projects of any size can learn from them.


Read my definitive guide to project success criteria to help you get your project off to the best start.


Project success criteria: how do you define success?

Success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged to have been successful in the eyes of the stakeholders. It is these that must be tracked to be able to answer the question of whether your project has delivered any benefits.

There are 2 types of success criteria:

  • Project: things related to the professional job of running the project eg produce and gain sign off for project initiation document.
  • Deliverables: things delivered as a result of the project eg distribute 3,000 educational leaflets to schools in our county.

The first type is related to the management of the project, which can be referred to in your regular project reports (my training course about project reporting can give you more advice and project status report templates) or at the post-project review when the work is complete. These help focus the mind on the ‘business’ of project management and relate to doing the project right, completing what you set out to achieve within the defined parameters.

The second type is strongly linked to the business case and the rationale behind doing the project. These are deliverable-based success criteria and relate to what it is the project has achieved. The sponsor has engaged the project team with the objective of delivering something that will benefit him or her and that is what should be tracked.

Photo of lightbulbProject management-related success criteria do not need to be tracked over time and so you do not need to generate a baseline of current performance. Once the project is over you should be able to say with certainty whether or not, and to what extent, you met the criteria. The true business benefits, on the other hand, may last for a lot longer. Even a one-off project like changing all the office light bulbs to energy efficient ones has durable benefits. The success criteria could be: ‘maintain electricity savings at 40 per cent of previous expenditure.’ Tracking the benefits will make certain that the business-as-usual team will be aware when the costs start to increase again – and be able to find out who replaced a dead bulb with a non-efficient one.

A baseline of current performance should be taken before or in the early stages of the project. It should record the current performance against the success criteria before the project is delivered. This baseline gives the business-as-usual team something to compare against. It is great knowing that you are now calling back customers within 30 minutes, but if you do not know what the situation was before the project was implemented it is impossible to judge if things are better now. The baseline allows clear identification of performance differences in the post-project world. Be sure to use the same calculations and tracking method to establish the baseline as you plan to do for the ongoing measurement, otherwise you risk comparing apples to pears.

Success criteria can be measured in two ways:

  • Discrete: Yes/No (we did or did not do something) eg Project delivered on time, company gained XYZ accreditation, new branch opened
  • Continuous: measurable on a scale (we did something to a certain extent, within a target range) eg Improve customer satisfaction scores to between 75 per cent and 100 per cent, increase revenue by 8-10 per cent, rebrand 20 offices within Quarter 4.

Continuous success criteria always include the possibility of being translated into discrete targets. If customer satisfaction was 82 per cent in March, and the target was 75 per cent, you reached the target. If it was 74 per cent, you didn’t. Monitoring benefits on a continuous scale is always better as it allows you to track changes over a period of time. If the customer satisfaction target was reached in April, that’s fantastic. But you cannot tell from a yes/no measurement if it was better or worse than March.

Next time: so why do projects fail?

Get Started Using Social Media on Your ProjectsLearn more about using online collaboration tools to manage your projects with my ebook, Get Started Using Social Media on Your Projects (3rd Edition). It’s a 54-page ebook covering:

  • 5 social media tools for project managers and suggestions as to which tools to start with
  • Guidance and examples on the use of project blogs
  • The business value of social media tools
  • The pre-requisites are for making your social media deployment a success
  • Guidance on privacy, security and social media policies
  • Setting up your social media deployment as a project (well, what else would you expect in a guide for project managers?!)
  • Introducing and customising social media tools
  • Getting ready for the launch
  • Going live with your new tool and training users
  • Measuring success and keeping it going, including new case studies and examples
  • Checklist for your social media deployment
  • Appendix with further resources

Learn more about it here or buy your copy now.

Get Started Using Social Media on Your Projects
A practical, six-step guide to setting up and launching a social media initiative to help you collaborate more productively on projects.
Price: £8.00

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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Taking the guess out of success

Organisations don’t define failure. We don’t document how we will know if a project has failed – what failure looks like – because thinking about failing is not a good way to motivate the project team when the work has only just started. The absence of a formal definition of failure makes it uncomfortably easy for internal and external stakeholders to brand projects a failure. This reaction normally relates to projects that are over budget and don’t deliver on time, like London’s Jubilee tube line. That project was £1.5 billion overspent and delivered 2 years late. It ‘failed’ because, in the view of the media and some key stakeholders, the most important criteria for project success are delivery on time and on budget.

Successful organisations take the guesswork out of this process: they define what success looks like, so they know when they have achieved it. Forget how it appears to the outside world, it is your company, and your project team, that need to define what success means for your project. Perhaps you don’t care how long it takes, or how much it costs, provided the quality is second to none, or your customers are satisfied, or nobody has to work overtime in getting it done.

Whatever the definition, it is your definition, and one that the project team has to agree on. This takes the form of documenting how you will know when you have been successful. The documentation of critical success criteria per project is essential, otherwise how will you know if your project has been successful if you haven’t defined what success looks like?

Next time: the two types of project success criteria


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