How to turn around ailing projects

Ariane von Berg, Friday 20 June 2014 | Reading time: unknown

How to turn around ailing projects

Deadlines and budget limits are overrun, your project team is overloaded with work and the positive spirit that was prevalent at the beginning vanished into thin air. All this signals: Your project is en route to failure. Not necessarily – you can still change tack and here’s how.

It’s not only the big public projects like the much bespoken project that fail. Business moguls, well versed in project based work like Apple with their latest Apple Maps update project show, things can go wrong no matter how many previous projects you’ve successfully tackled.

Other projects, hidden from the public, regularly fail. Studies on project management show that about 15 to 18 per cent of all projects never reach completion at all; some research papers even say that one third of all project missions fail. Failing projects are not only frustrating, they result in a waste of corporate resources, costing U.S. corporations millions of Dollars. But this doesn’t have to be.

Realization is the first step to improvement

The first step to getting a project back on track is realizing that it is swerving off course. Those responsible for the successful completion of complex projects face a great number of challenges and stepping stones they have to overcome. It is crucial that the project management and everyone involved don’t turn a blind eye to issues that arise as the project is underway.

After the initial identification of project-related issues, it is essential to find out what the underlying problems are that cause the difficulties. An in-depth analysis of the project plan and schedule, budget situation and resource capacities helps get to the root of the problems. Based on the analysis of the status-quo, the project management can develop an action plan that aims at mitigating the problems and getting back on track for success.

Be vigilant

Only in very rare cases do projects fail out of the blue, there are multiple indicators that announce forthcoming issues. For issues not to result in a crisis, it is key to tackle them at the earliest possible stage. It is essential to regularly check the project plan to see whether the project still meets the set timeframe and requirements. It’s better to detect discrepancies and make adjustments, if necessary even radical amendments to the original plan. Even if individual requirements aren’t met, the overall project goals can be delivered. A project management software can function as an early warning system, helping to detect arising issues. This certainly requires an up-to-date project plan that includes all deadlines, milestones and possible resource capacities to highlight potential bottlenecks.

Additionally, on an individual level, everyone involved in the project should have the opportunity to flag problems. It lies in the nature of a complex undertaking such as a project that even experienced project managers might overlook potentially risky situations.

The assessment of project-related difficulties and their impact regarding the project’s success is an issues in itself because it is subject to the individual’s perception. Additionally, it depends to a great degree on the particular project’s goals and content. In order to establish objective benchmarks, it is helpful to determine threshold values for all critical elements in a project. These values should be established during the risk analysis as part of the planning process that precedes the project kick-off. In case the defined threshold values are being overrun, for example deadlines or project costs, the decision makers know exactly, it’s time to step in and work on those issues or make adjustments to the project plan.

Develop effective teams

A major problem in projects is ensuring the right skill mix among the team members. It is in fact not the project manager alone who delivers successful projects but it requires an adequate team to achieve successful project delivery. While professional project managers should have the core skills it takes to effectively and efficiently manage a corporate mission, they often lack sector specific skills and knowledge.

In order to assemble the right people on the project team, the various roles and skill requirements need to be defined at the beginning of the project. Especially in fields where there are skills shortages, hiring the right people for the job can pose a problem that shouldn’t be underestimated. Even if at the outset of a project no gaps in skills and knowledge requirements have been detected, it’s worth re-evaluating the team’s skills mix to ensure that this is not the issue’s underlying problem. Projects might also be confronted with the problems caused by team members moving to a different job or seconded to another project.

To overcome this issue, it might be necessary to train team members to gain skills that the team is currently lacking and that are crucial for successful project delivery. Online coaching, educational programs, mentoring and social networking can be more useful than increasing headcount which might only lead to increase costs and complexity. However, time is money and education should therefore be available remote at a time and place that is most convenient to the team members.

Communicate openly

One of the essentials in project management is alignment, and this also goes for situations when things go awry. In order to effectively resolve project issues, it takes the support of all project stakeholders – team as well as client – and transparency is the basis for their continued support. It also helps prevent uncomfortable confrontations with the client at a later point in case the project does not reach its goal within the projected framework. Having an open discussion about project issues can also help to find the best possible solution to the difficulties at hands. Practicing a healthy and open communication culture can even prevent issues from arising in the first place. It is important to give everyone access to the information required to best fulfill their tasks. On the other hand it is just as important not to overload team members with a chaotic overflow of information rendering them incapable of acting effectively.

What is failure?

Essentially, failing means that the project did not meet the expectations that were set at the onset of the undertaking. It is essential for a project’s success to set realistic project goals to be achieved in a doable timeframe right at the beginning. This can prevent having to implement resource and cost intensive measures to resolve project-related issues. That said, implementing the right measures to turn an ailing project around and achieve a late delivery in most cases would be considered the lesser of two evils compared to abandoning the project all together.

If the detailed status-quo analysis finds that an adjustment of the project plan won’t help to result in organizational benefits, it might be better cancel the project in order to cut the losses. Especially if the project cannot be turned around at reasonable additional costs. The additional investments to turn around an ailing project should always be measured against the organizational benefit of a late delivery.

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