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How To Break A Project

Updated: Sep 7

Photo of a collapsed building - illustrating what happens when construction projects fail

Best practice in Project Management

Iconic Project Management’s IT Director, Andrew Boswell, has worked as a Project Director for over 40 years, in IT and High Tech. The failure rate of projects in that field is alarmingly high. Why does it happen? How can the pitfalls be overcome? I asked Andrew to give us his advice on best practice in project management. Here are Andrew’s thoughts on how to break a project!

Elizabeth: Why do so many projects fail?

Andrew: I have spent my life in the world of IT and high tech projects where the failure rate has always been dramatically high. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that one in six IT projects failed, with a cost overrun of more than 200% and a schedule overrun of almost 70%.I have seen a lot of broken projects at first hand. Many times in my career, I have been asked to take over a failed project and fix it.

Elizabeth: What is the most likely reason for a project to go down?

Step 1: Muddle The Objectives

A manager in crash helmet and mask looks anxiously at a laptop

Andrew: When you start a new project, you have to sell your idea to a lot of different stakeholders. You tell them how it’s going to be. You are going to transform Customer Service. Embrace new technology. Make a strategic leap forward. Reduce operating costs and boost profits. It’s going to be fantastic!Next comes the bad news. They all buy it! Now you’re on the hook for all those objectives.It is vital that you write the project objectives down and prioritise them, and get all the stakeholders to sign them off. Stick them on the wall and pull them out at every progress meeting.

Elizabeth: How can we define the objectives clearly?

Andrew: That’s another big mistake – leaving the objectives fuzzy. For example, “Transform Customer Service” – what does that even mean? Who needs it?

I guess it means there is a problem with customer service that needs correcting. Maybe the complaint rate is too high. A better objective might be “Halve the complaint rate by the end of this year.”

Elizabeth: Big projects get the most resources and priority. Isn’t that a good thing?

Step 2: Think Big

A mammoth.

Andrew: In my experience, big projects are most likely to get into trouble.

Gartner found that projects with budgets over $1 million have a 50 per cent higher failure rate than projects with budgets under $350,000.

Don’t push so many objectives into the same project. Divide them up into digestible pieces and do them step by step. Admittedly, one or two of these smaller projects might still go wrong, but they won’t sink the whole ship.

Elizabeth: Shouldn’t these issues be fixed at the planning stage?

Step 3: Plan To Fail

A manager looks belatedly at his pan. In the background, a rocket launch has hit the ground.

Andrew: There’s an old saying that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

You’d be surprised how many projects lurch into implementation without a sound, achievable plan. The plan tells the project team what they are expected to do, and when. Otherwise, the project has no chance of success.

Planning isn’t easy. You’re trying to build a plan that meets the timescales, but you don’t know how long every one of the activities is going to take.

You might think you just have to tell the team to achieve it in the time you need and stop complaining. Of course you have to tell them what the plan expects, but then it’s vital to ask them what they think they can really deliver.

If you browbeat the team into accepting a plan they can’t achieve, the project is doomed. Listen to what they are saying. Work with them to find a solution and build it into your plan.

Elizabeth: Surely, the project manager calls the shots? Isn’t that what leadership is all about?

Step 4: Give Your Authority Away

A project manager is giving his crown away

Andrew: It takes a lot of leadership to lead people over a cliff! That isn’t what we are doing here.

The role of the leader is to listen to what the team is saying and take it on board. Usually, a project will have a Steering Group with representatives of the stakeholders.

If the project is going wrong, they will start disagreeing with each other – and with you – about what to do. If they challenge your authority, you must stand up to them. Show them you are listening but demonstrate you have things under control.

Elizabeth: If there’s a steering group, who really takes the decisions?

Step 5: Avoid Taking Decisions

This project manager can't make a decision

Andrew: When you’re the project manager, the buck stops with you. The team needs you to call the shots – on myriad decisions, day by day and minute by minute. The steering group certainly wants to know what is going on, and they may be senior to you, but they are relying on you not to break their project. You can’t keep running to them for decisions.If you can’t take your decisions quickly, the project will grind to a halt. Make sure you get the right advice, then decide right away.

Elizabeth: Aren’t project meetings the best place to take decisions?

Step 6: Hide in meetings

A group of project managers in a meeting

Andrew: Some meetings are terrible.

I took over a massive project for a big energy company a couple of years ago. Thirty people attended every progress meeting, and each one took four hours every week. Everyone wanted to have the last word.

Nobody was listening, because they were all texting or doing their emails. Half the time they were texting each other! It was a nightmare.

I replaced all those meetings with one-hour sessions restricted only to a small project management team, cut down to eight people. Each person was managing one of the project work streams. If anyone needed a decision from the group, they raised it at the meeting, then we discussed it and made the decision.

Towards the end of the project, I added daily ’stand-up’ meetings to finalise that day’s activities. When people are standing up they think and speak faster, and the job gets done.

Step 7: Live without what you need

A beggar is seeking human kindness

Elizabeth: I’ve heard that a lot of projects fail through lack of resources.

Andrew: Every project manager complains about not having the resources they need, and usually they are right – they don’t.

As the project manager, it’s your job to fight for what the project needs. That’s a great way to demonstrate leadership.You should also make savings in other parts of the project so that you don’t blow the budget.

As we saw earlier, overspending is the most common cause of project failure.

Elizabeth: How do you keep up morale in a challenging project?

Step 8: Pretend Everything Is OK

This manager has his head in the sand

Andrew: In all projects, communication is everything. It’s your only tool for getting people to work together. The project manager is like a little radio station, transmitting and receiving all the latest information about the project.

In many of my projects, I sent out a weekly ’blog post’ every Friday, summarising the notable happenings of the project that week. It gave me a chance to bang the drum about milestones we had achieved and problems we’d overcome.

To celebrate solving a problem, people must know about it. Therefore a lot of my weekly blog post was taken up with highlighting new issues that had arisen, or giving progress reports on problems I had previously highlighted. Making heroes.

The rumour mill always seemed to beat me to it, but it gave people comfort to know I could see the same issues they could. That gave them hope. Morale improved.

Elizabeth: How much warning do you get when a project is going wrong?

Step 9: Play It By Ear

A project manager is blindfolded. Banknotes are swirling around him but he can't get any of them

Andrew: If you laid down clear project objectives and you made sure each of them was clear and measurable, and if you drew up an achievable plan, you have a perfect way of measuring progress objectively by measuring it.

In that energy project I mentioned, we had 22 million customers who had to be migrated from the old customer care system to the new one. We drew up our migration plan to move a million customer records per week, and we used the backlog of migrations to measure and report progress.

Financial controls also helped me double-check the money was being spent at the rate consistent with the progress being made. You can’t do that if you are flying blind. Then failure is inevitable. If you can’t get the controls in place, it’s time to make way for someone who can.

Elizabeth: How can you build a career as a project manager? It seems such a bleak prospect, to be blamed for everything that goes wrong.

Step 10: Blame Someone Else

Two project managers are blaming each other

Andrew: If you don’t get your act together, you aren’t going to succeed, and everyone will feel the pain of failure. On the other hand, when you do address the pitfalls I have told you about, you have a much better chance of making it.

I’ve been able to turn projects around many times like this. But if you ignore the warning signs, the project will fail, and you will only have yourself to blame.

That’s all there is to it!

Iconic Project Management logo

Andrew Boswell

Director of IT at Iconic Project Management Limited.

Andrew is a Programme Director with more than 40 years experience in IT and Telecomms. Andrew has run many complex programmes and projects, helping top companies to meet challenging time, cost and quality objectives. In his blog he writes about how to improve productivity.

Lizzie Hewitt

CEO at Iconic Project Management Limited. We specialise in retail, leisure and commercial construction: building or refurbishing your perfect premises.

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