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How to Overcome Project Failure and Succeed in Project Management

Eric McConnell
January 10, 2013

6 Steps that Fight Failing PM

How to overcome project failureAn attempt to overcome previously failed projects and succeed in future initiatives can be challenging. If your project has been launched before but failed for some reasons, most likely your team and other stakeholders have a negative mindset towards the failure reasons can be addressed and a new project will be successful. The customer or/and the sponsor of the failed project may even convince themselves that they no longer need the outcome that was expected for delivery and so they’re not going to give a new try.

Meanwhile, a thorough analysis of failed project management (PM) can greatly help understand what was done wrong, develop feasible solutions, and remove any barrier for future success. Below I give a 6-step approach I personally use in my organization to overcome project failure and succeed in PM. Your suggestions, comments and feedback are valued and appreciated. Thanks.

Understand Why Projects Fail

Many various project management initiatives were failing at different stages of their life-cycle because of multiple reasons, and the failure rate varied greatly from project to project, depending on their purpose, type, size and nature. For example, according to one of the studies conducted at the Gartner Research lab in 2012, larger IT and software dev projects were stopped or terminated prior to their scheduled completion date because of inadequate team building, lack of stakeholder commitment, and ineffective budgeting. The average failure rate for those IT initiatives passed the 70% mark, which is critical, Gartner reported. The agency also pointed out that according to their expectations for the current 2013 year, the tendency would remain the same, if not worse.

In order to avoid the same fate for your future projects (no matter whether they’ll be dedicated to IT, construction, agriculture, or whatever else industry), first you need to understand the reasons why your previous initiatives have been failed and then learn what needs to be changed for greater success rate. As a rule, this job is done by a business analyst who should perform a kind of root cause analysis on the previous failures and collaborate with the stakeholders to explore the reasons for failed project management and understand what lessons could be learned. If you’re new to PM analysis and there is no project failed in the past, anyway the following recommendations will help you take the right steps to overcome project failure and plan for better.

Top 6 Failure Reasons to Analyze

An analysis of previous projects and reasons for their failure can involve a great deal of options, from auditing documents and reviewing deliverables to holding interviews with stakeholders and evaluating solutions currently in place. I suggest you begin with reviewing documentations and interviewing teams, because documents can report on the formal processes implemented in the past and people can report you on the actual context.

When you conduct the analysis, consider the following root causes for failed project management:

  • Wrong Team Organization. You need to explore the team organizational chart to figure out whether wrong people were involved in the work, from leaders and sponsors to team members and personnel.
  • Poor Motivation. Try to find out whether the business organization provides the team with the right attitude and motivation towards the work to be done.
  • Insufficient Technology Capabilities. Can you say that the project has been failed because of the wrong technology selected and insufficiency in the capabilities to support what was needed?
  • Wrong Methodology. Analyze the methodology employed in the processes and explore whether it was appropriate to the project’s procedure and change controls.
  • Environmental Aspects. Find out if there was something occurred in the market or political environment that made the success unreachable.
  • Constraints Inappropriately Defined. Analyze the key constraints of schedule, budget, scope and quality for their appropriateness to the project and whether they were originally defined reasonably.

Recognize the Changes in Failed Project Management

Once you have identified and understood the root causes, your next step is to develop an approach that could help overcome project failure by avoiding or addressing the issues that caused the past projects to fail. A great portion of this task would involve you in reviewing and documenting any changes occurred in the above-mentioned factors of failed PM. For instance, proper candidates to the team were selected and better motivation techniques were employed, so that the overall team organization became more efficient and fitting the performance goals. Or perhaps the business environment was changed for better, and now the need to deliver the business objectives is more severe than ever.

You must explore every change in failed project management practice, figure out whether it has increased or decreased the likelihood of success, and document the current need for project implementation. Combine all of your records on the changes in a single sheet and then aggregate the results to assess whether the project is worth a new try. Hold a meeting with the stakeholders to highlight the changes and their impact to success and to agree on whether the new project should be undertaken at this time.

Adjust the Framework for the New Initiative

The changes happened in the project environment and increased the success rate now need to be considered against the constraints and goals of the previous projects, so that you can assess what components are still needed today. You must remove any unnecessary items or those increasing the probability of PM failure. Only the most critical components in the scope should be retained, and the objectives should be concise as much as possible.

According to the assessment of what needs to be included in or excluded from the project scope, you can adjust the current PM framework for your new initiative to increase the chances for succeeding. Your adjustments will help the team focus on the right objectives. You will in turn get improved awareness and buy-in from the stakeholders.

Be Optimistic to Overcome Project Failure

Being optimistic means demonstrating a certain behavior that makes everyone around believe that everything will be ok, regardless of how bad the things were in the past. In order to fight project failure, you must show an optimistic attitude towards the new initiative, telling key stakeholders that the new project’s outcome will be quite different than the previous failures.

I suggest that you do your best to address the natural tendency to be skeptical about resurrecting a failed project. Be persuasive and motivate everyone towards succeeding at the new initiative. Communicate the adjusted framework of your project and ensure the stakeholders that this project is reframed in the current context. Tell about the lessons learned from previous unsuccessful attempts and point out all those adjustments that have been made to turn the new project into success.

Get Stakeholder Commitment Required for Future Success

In order for you to succeed in project management, all of the stakeholders (organizations and people who take a stake in the project) need to be entirely involved in your new initiative and be strongly committed to the success. Committing the key players of your project means that the following aspects need to be addressed:

  • Efficient leadership, which helps guide the team through the implementation life-cycle.
  • Sufficient funding, which ensures the needed finances and technology are in place.

Because the attitudes and engagement of some stakeholders may change over time, you must continuously communicate with all stakeholder groups to ensure that the project won’t lose its momentum and that the enthusiasm won’t be depleted. When interacting with less enthusiastic personnel, you need to focus their attention on any positive changes that have already occurred or are expected for occurrence soon. Also closely collaborate with leaders and supervisors to keep track of any issues in the team environment and detect and solve changes that could negatively impact your project.

Succeed in PM through Continuous Analysis

Even if your previous failures are considered, the lessons are learned, the stakeholders are committed, and your new project is initiated, you must expect for a more challenging process that ultimately brings the job to a successful close. Your ability to understand the failure reasons, adjust the PM framework, and inculcate perspective and enthusiastic attitudes in the team helped you overcome project failure and adapt to changing circumstances.

Now, when your project is running, you need to continuously analyze current work progress, detect and solve issues early, and look for any opportunities that could improve the project and its chances for success. Instead of fearing a previously failed project, you can use your analytical skills to understand any troubles your current project encounters and succeed in project management.

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