Why Successful Projects Fail
By Jim Finch
The project satisfied its requirements. The project was delivered on schedule AND under budget. It was a “success”, right? … Perhaps.
The open question is: How was the project received by its stakeholders?
“Some were very happy with it. Most liked it a lot, but there were a handful of stakeholders who were dissatisfied. They didn’t think that the project delivered everything it should have, but those stakeholders didn’t participate fully and had false expectations of what was within the project’s scope.”
Does that sound like the familiar lament of a “wronged” project manager?
It’s easy to blame those stakeholders for their own dissatisfaction, but is that fair or even correct?
The Project Management Institute (PMI) includes “Manage Stakeholder Expectations” as one of the five processes included in Project Communications Management. On smaller projects, managing stakeholder expectations would fall under the Project Manager’s responsibilities. On larger, more complex projects a Change Management specialist might be assigned to address that process/task group.
How Quickly They Forget…
Even though stakeholders may have participated in the requirements gathering / definition activities, they may not remember (or may have chosen not to remember) what was decided to be “in” scope or “out”. A good project management team will carefully document the project and deliverable requirements, as the requirements are used to determine product acceptance criteria and completion. As the project proceeds, additional definition might be added to the requirements (progressive elaboration), but the core requirements remain unchanged.
Both the PMI and the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) processes include Change Management methodologies to accommodate changes in project scope (when requirements are modified). These processes / methodologies allow the change to be documented, reviewed and approved, prior to development work or implementation proceeding.
Without strict Change Management controlling of project scope, many projects have problems meeting their schedule or cost commitments. These Change Control documents are also useful in helping stakeholders understand the project scope.
Change Management: Not Just Scope Control
While PMI & ITIL focus on Change Management primarily in terms of scope control, it is actually a much larger work effort. The PMI process, Managing Stakeholder Expectations, is mostly about Change Management, in spite of not being specifically identified as such in PMBOK. (PMBOK is PMI’s Project Management Book of Knowledge. It is a book which presents a PMI’s definitions of project management terminology and guidelines.)
Even though the project documentation may, for example, specifically describe a data input screen in terms of its fields and functions, if, after Go Live, Stakeholder B thinks that the font size on that screen was too small to be readable, then that stakeholder will be unhappy. He might describe the project as having “failed”. So whose issue is this?
Stakeholder B might have chosen not to fully participate in the interface review or acceptance, but that doesn’t change how he feels.
Regardless of the stakeholder’s abdication of his responsibility to review the interface, it is still the project team’s responsibility to manage that stakeholder’s expectations through meetings, demonstrations and, if necessary, one-on-one discussions.
Change Management is not just about controlling scope, it’s about communications, managing expectations, education/training and it’s about helping the user community and stakeholders adjust to the changes that the new process or product might bring to their organization.
When changes occur too quickly or too dramatically, stakeholders may have problems integrating the changes into their business processes. Regardless of whether a project met its goals (definition of “success”), it could still be considered a “failure” to the user community and stakeholders if they can’t effectively integrate it into their operational processes.
“Success” may be in the eyes of a project team or project sponsor. “Failure” is commonly in the world of the end users and stakeholders. At project closure, if the users aren’t satisfied with the end product, regardless of what a contract or requirements document might say, that “successful” project might still be viewed by them as a “failure”.
That’s Not Fair!
The project manager and team had worked hard to deliver on scope, on time and on budget. It’s not “fair” that someone is saying that the project is a “failure”? This is one case where perception really is reality. The PM can try to convince the stakeholder that he’s wrong, but it’s very difficult to argue with a “perception”. Pushing facts toward a stakeholder with a bad perception of project delivery is generally a losing battle. Perceptions are often based more on emotion, than fact.
The best approach is one that should have been taken much earlier in the project … communicate with the stakeholders. “Communicating” means more than distributing information at a meeting or via email. “Communicating” includes the delivery of information AND the confirmation that the information has been received and understood.
Managing Stakeholder Expectations is not just sending out emails. It’s engaging the stakeholders in active discussions of the project scope and the requirements. It’s about understanding their perceptions of what the end product or service might be. It’s confirming or correcting those perceptions long before Go Live.
If, after the scope definition discussions, there is still a significant gap between the documented requirements and what the stakeholder(s) understand is to be delivered, then the Change Control Process component of Change Management should be engaged. The Change Control Process moves the project team out of the line of fire and the perceived scope gap becomes an question of money and schedule.
Start Change Management processes early and continue them throughout the project. It’s always better to confront a problem head on than to allow it to grow and fester into a more significant problem that is difficult to effectively address later.
The original article can be found commented on at http://beyondcenter.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/why-successful-projects-fail/
Jim Finch, a senior project manager with ieSolutions, is a PMI-certified PMP with 20+ years of experience leading projects in a variety of industries (public, private, utility) and environments. You can read more from Jim on his blog.
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