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Why most projects fail before they even start

When it comes to the factors driving business success or failure, the ability to execute projects is high on the list.

Read Time
6 minute read

Projects drive change and innovation. Projects let us step out of business as usual to develop new products and better ways of doing business. In a world where digital and other disruptors are reshaping business models on a daily basis, change and innovation is key. That’s why businesses are increasingly projectbased.

But the alarming reality is that most projects don’t succeed. Research by academics, professional bodies, and consulting firms shows that around 70% of change projects fail. What’s more, many of those projects fail before they even start.

Genioo’s experience shows that project failure often begins right at the outset. It typically stems from lack of time or focus on the pre-project phase. Getting this wrong sets your project up to fail, and in this article we look at why things can go off the rails so early.

But the good news is that getting this phase right will establish the foundation for success. In this article, we also look at the five key principles that in our experience are often overlooked - but which are crucial to ensure your project is set up to succeed from the beginning.

Into the unknown: reasons for failure

In most projects, the ‘Before’ phase is relatively rudimentary. Yet, when you build a house, you also invest a considerable amount of time to make sure you have a detailed plan, blueprint, contractor lined up, etc. “Let’s just get going” is usually a recipe for disaster. Yet many business projects start out that way.

This phase is rarely done well, because doing so requires time and money. Involving the people who ultimately need to change, to gain their buy-in at the start, can also require time and effort. There’s a natural reluctance to make that investment because projects are expensive enough, the high-level strategy work has already been done, and the business wants to see tangible results as soon as possible.

There’s an old saying amongst software developers that ‘the sooner you start, the longer it takes.’ The same is true of projects. Yet too many get under way without taking the time up front to create a clear understanding and alignment about what will be required to succeed. The results are predictable:

  • The roles and responsibilities (of both the project team and stakeholders) are often ambiguous, which creates uncertainty, duplication and loss of focus.
  • Stakeholders are not aligned on the issues and gaps the project is designed to address, the intended outcomes, or the approach.
  • The time, effort and resources required to succeed are also often unclear - and typically underestimated thanks to a well-documented optimism bias.

When projects begin without sufficient planning and alignment, they’re often slow to get underway. Stakeholders and team members need to be brought up to speed on the strategy and their role in it.

Too often, the project objectives are watered down in order to achieve at least some outcomes. In the worst case, they are abandoned completely. In most cases, a key reason is that there was no clear understanding at the outset of what was required to deliver the project at the outset.

Adding fuel to the fire

The irony is that there is broad consensus across all methodologies on the things that need to be defined before you start a project – the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.

The ‘What’ includes setting the long term vision (your ‘North Star’), along with a set of goals defining where you want to be compared to where you are today, and how long it will take to get there.

The ‘How’ includes identifying the obstacles and assets, and putting all the enablers in place such as a plan of how you will get to where you want to go, the internal and external resources needed, governance and project management, and team and leadership buy-in.

These factors are well known and accepted, and they are included in most project plans. But the plan is almost always created by a small group led by the project manager (or sometimes external consultants). Unfortunately, it rarely involves the teams who actually need to change in order to realize the value the project is intended to deliver.

Because the team actually doing the work doesn’t really ‘own’ the plan, they are less committed to its success. In the worst case, because they haven’t been involved they may not agree with the rationale behind it or the case for change.

Similarly, if the leaders of the business are not sufficiently involved at an early stage they are likely to have a poor understanding of what is required for success. They’re also likely to have unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved and how long it will take.

Project plans developed in isolation (especially when developed by external consultants) also tend to have a short-term focus. They’re typically structured in smaller (e.g. three month) chunks of work carried out by a single, static team. But this gives rise to resourcing issues as projects tend to require different resources at different times. It also means the entirety of the project is not really understood. As the timeline keeps getting extended, costs spiral, and project fatigue sets in. Often, that leads to the project either being reduced in scope or completely abandoned.

Setting up for success

It doesn’t need to be this way. By taking a different approach to the ‘Before’ phase, you can create a platform for success, one that will not only get your project off to a roaring start, but sustain it through to delivery of the intended benefits.

In our experience the degree of ownership amongst senior and middle management is often the key difference between success and failure – and that starts at the very beginning. Getting senior and middle management stakeholders involved and invested in the ‘Before’ phase is crucial. It requires a different process where the project manager enables key stakeholders to build the plan, rather than doing it for them.

The process is underpinned by 5 key principles:

1. Joint planning

Translating the high-level goals into a clear and well-understood plan should be a joint process. The project manager should guide and lead it, but involving the wider team ensures true business ownership of the plan. The outcome should be a project charter and plan that sets out:

  • Project objectives – a clear statement of the project’s goals, outcomes and rationale
  • Project deliverables –tangible outcomes and measures of success
  • Project scope – upfront alignment on both what is in and what is out of scope for the project – e.g. business units, markets, products, geographies etc.
  • Project schedule – clear expectations on project timelines and key milestones
  • Resources – an agreed statement of the resources (human, financial, infrastructure, capabilities etc.) needed to execute the project.

2. Clarity on resourcing

As we’ve noted, the internal team should lead and own the critical thinking, planning and execution of the project, with guidance and support from the project manager (or consultants) when needed. There should be clear guidance on expectations from the team members. It’s easy to say ‘Kathy should be part of the team’ – but whether Kathy is supposted to spend one hour per week or three days per week on the project is often not clear.

But it’s also important to recognise that projects typically need different resources at different times and move beyond the traditional ‘one team / x people for y months’. Enabling access to experienced resources, whether internal or external, when needed will help the project team develop the skills needed for sustainable success while still ensuring they retain responsibility and accountability.

3. Reverse engineering

Inadequate understanding of the resources, time and effort needed is a major contributor to project fatigue and ultimately failure. Reverse engineering of the program with the outcome in mind from the start ensures the end-to-end project lifecycle is considered - even if it takes several years to get there – and the complete requirements for success are understood from the outset.

4. Senior leadership involvement

The role of project sponsors is critical, but it is sometimes misunderstood and the requirements of the role underestimated. It’s key that senior leaders are involved and have the end in mind from day one. This helps ensure they really understand what is expected from them and their role in creating the conditions for success.

5. Cascading

Success needs everyone to play their part. That means actively engaging the people who need to change both emotionally (so they want it) and rationally (so they understand and own it). Cascading the planning process and involving the wider team not only builds that engagement but also ensures rapid momentum. There’s no need to explain the plan and their role in it before you start. They already know, because they’ve helped develop it.

Getting your ducks in a row

To borrow an analogy from nature, when mother ducks take their ducklings anywhere they take time to get all their little ducks in a row before venturing out. Projects are no different, but we are humans, not ducks. Too often we are impatient to get going, with predictable and unfortunate results.

At Genioo, we have developed a formalised process we call Top Team Alignment which is designed to help our clients ensure all the elements for success are in place from the beginning. But whether you adopt a formal approach or not, following these five key principles will help you ensure you have all your ducks in a row before you venture out, and greatly improve your chances of reaching your destination.

Top Team Alignment

Top Team Alignment

Genioo’s Top Team Alignment program is a proven approach designed to help you create a platform for success from the start. Our structured, experience-based methodology will help you build trust and ownership, deliver a bullet-proof plan with clear accountabilities and milestones, and get your team operating at peak much faster. If you are serious about success, Top Team Alignment is an investment that will repay itself many times over.

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