April 1, 2019
Three Reasons Why Your Project Tanked
#1: They Don’t Understand What to Do
After 25 years of managing projects big and small, I’ve seen a lot of failure. While many of those failures came through poor planning, unrealistic expectations or simply lack of funds, I reflected across them all and realized something: most project failures come from three discreet and completely avoidable causes.
This is your challenge and search deep within yourself if this is the cause. Many leaders do not ensure that their people are clear about their roles and responsibilities, especially on long-term complex projects. Sharing a clear vision of what the planned outcome should look like is only the beginning. Sit down with each team and ensure you understand how each person on the team will contribute. Individual accountability starts with a clear understanding of the tasks involved and the parts each person will play in achieving those goals. Getting people to volunteer will ensure more tasks are completed correctly on time and under budget.
The biggest mistake is not confirming people understand. It’s not enough to share your project plan and expect clarity. It’s one thing to create a clear and measurable vision statement or project goal; it’s another to confirm that each person you work with can put the same vision or goal into their own words and provide you with a response that shows how they will individually contribute to meeting it. Only then can you be assured that everyone understands what’s to be done, by whom, and by when.
#2: They Disagree With the Direction
The next step in this is to empower and enable your team members, especially when it comes to those leading teams for you. You cannot insist on unrealistic expectations. Don’t expect someone to do it your way. People work differently. Some are individual contributors; others need constant feedback from a team. Each person needs to work in a way that makes them most effective, especially in creative sectors. Your task should be to provide the environment that enables the work to be completed, not how. Let them figure it out (with your guidance, sharing your expertise). Employees should be able to provide feedback on strategy and suggest their own tactical plans. They’ll be more engaged, take more pride in their work, and become better employees and managers over time.
I can hear you now — but how can you ensure that you’ll get your desired outcome? You can’t. People are messy. The more people you have to deal with, the messier it can be. Staying on message, focusing on the goal, and providing support (e.g., logistical, resources, environment, shielding from outside forces, etc.) will all help assuage this situation.
#3: Fear of Change
Sometimes individuals or teams may be impacted by decisions made by senior management or outside forces (like the economy). Sometimes these decisions are made without any input from the teams that will be affected or later impacted by the decision. Both of these errors can significantly impact how a decision is implemented. For example, let’s say the Finance Department decides to outsource some of the hiring tasks of the HR Department and have contracted with a firm in India to handle those tasks at what they project will be a 50% savings over current spending. Good decision from Finance’s perspective. As the Head of HR, you may not have been consulted on this. You may not know how this will impact the positions in-house. You may notice resentment or rebellion coming from your team as you share this information. There could even be retaliation in the form of work slowdowns, strikes, sabotage and even willful destruction of work product in response to the decision.
You may have been just as blindsided as the teams that work under you. You may also be resentful, afraid and angry. You might not support the decision any more than your people, but you are the leader. You need to engage and empower them to do their best under any circumstances. Of course, you can advocate for the team. Of course, you can address the decision with your boss and seek alternatives. But you can’t moan and complain about the issues even if you want to. You can understand and empathize with their anger and feelings of powerlessness, but you are still an employee — someone trading paychecks for work. Regardless of whether your job will be there tomorrow, professionalism is always the best move forward. People will remember how you conducted yourself, even if your position is eliminated and you move on. Leadership means being ready to be the example — the role model. Your teams will follow your behavior. So be professional.
I once had to decrease the size of a marketing team from 50 to 25. It was a brutal restructuring after a round of funding. Every team in the company was hit, but marketing, as usual, took the hardest hit. Many of the people being let go were very good people, however, I could only keep the best of what were the best in the city. I knew that my focus had to be on the people staying with me on this journey and solidifying the new team.
Everyone can agree that most people don’t like change. Change is hard. Change is required in order to grow, as a person or as a company. Before introducing a change, be it a simply HR policy update or a major restructuring, the best advice is to anticipate all questions and concerns employees may have in reacting to the news. How will it affect them personally? Will this news affect their team or their mission? If they’re being let go or moved laterally, what are their options?
The way we managed this staff cut was HR handling the people being let go. As each person leaving took their walk to HR, I brought in another person staying to my office. I explained what was happening and why I had selected them to stay. I highlighted their strengths, introduced new opportunities and shared my vision for their future with the company. I shared my concerns about trust, that I was in their corner to support them. They shared their fears, grieved for co-workers, and some were thrilled. Some people were demoted, others reassigned to different teams, others promoted. I brought everyone staying with the company together at the end of the day and I shared my vision of the future and what I saw as the new normal for our team. It could have been a real mess. Instead, it opened a dialog where people understood they could trust me and share their thoughts and opinions. We were able to restructure without disruption. In fact, we continued to grow as we settled in to our new roles.
Managing change is also the time to maintain your open door policy. While most companies are loathe to discuss these issues citing legal liability, more communication is actually key to addressing concerns. Any time people feel that they’re not hearing the whole story, they naturally fill in the blanks with assumptions, and that information is usually shared casually at the water cooler, lunch room or smoking area. Actively monitoring and correcting rumors will keep the grapevine under control. You will create more loyalty and trust by being open and sharing. One caveat, however — unless you can express your own issues with the change in an appropriate and professional manner, save it for your therapist, religious advisor or BFF.
Change means movement and in movement there is power. Companies following the status quo are not growing; they’re stagnating. Embrace change as a normal part of doing business and others in the company will follow your example. Few people are comfortable in the chaos of change, but the more you apply yourself, the more effective leader you’ll be.
Projects tank for many reasons, but being conscious of these three internal factors will help you quickly identify and resolve them before they become bigger issues that can stall or destroy your project.