Troubled Projects and Root Causes

UPDATE: Our Troubled Projects webinar is scheduled for 12 April 2016. Register here.

Our colleagues at PM Solutions just put out another great white paper: Troubled Projects? Key Strategies for Quick Turnarounds. It synthesizes multiple project research studies into a straightforward approach to project review and recovery. Which, not so coincidentally, is the title of our course on the topic: Project Review and Recovery. While we wait for our upcoming webinar, I thought I’d add a few notes about the paper’s findings.

Right off the bat, the section on “The Bad News” highlights two perspectives on the root causes of troubled projects. The first comes from the CHAOS studies from the Standish Groups, which focused on information technology projects. In this view, the two factors that drive project failure are a lack of executive involvement or a lack of stakeholder involvement. The second comes from our own research, Strategies for Project Recovery. These prescriptions are more specific, pointing to poor requirements management, resource issues, scheduling problems, inaccurate planning, and missed or mismanaged risks.

Which set of root causes resonate with you? Do you gravitate towards the “softer side” approach, or would you pick with the one that focuses on traditional “hard” project management themes? We choose not to decide between the two diagnoses, noting that:

These risks align precisely with the fundamental strengths of project management: stakeholder management, planning, scheduling, and risk management, and also suggest that executives and stakeholders have not been involved at an early enough stage.

There’s more to not choosing between these two groups than simply saying “both are true.” It reflects the fact that we come with different perspectives on causation and influence in projects. I gravitate to leadership-driven causes. Missing executives and poorly engaged stakeholders make sense as prime suspects for project failure. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen these suspects drive poor planning, scheduling, and risk management outcomes. For example, executives can simply ignore project progress or forecast reporting, stakeholders may resist engagement, or managers may release only lesser-quality resources to a project.

However, re-reading this white paper reminded me that the causation can run the other direction. Let’s just look at one of my examples above: executives who ignore project progress or forecast reporting. Many project managers lament this situation. They say “that’s the typical disconnected executive mindset…they don’t appreciate or get project management.”

In such cases, the project manager should look at him or herself first. After all, who is responsible for ensuring that communications are understood? Isn’t it both sender and receiver? Did she know that many executives don’t understand or don’t like much project reporting? Has he asked the executive why she’s neither attending status meetings nor attentive when there? In many cases, senior leaders will give quite direct and actionable feedback: usually that project reporting is obscure and overly elaborate. Your most important stakeholders disengaged because your work product wasn’t fit for use: its receivers couldn’t or didn’t value it.

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