Implementing Solutions for Failing Projects

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Trying to manage projects that never fail is an exercise not only in futility, but foolishness. Error-free processes indicate professional stasis. Perfectionism and fear of failure stifle creativity. In fact, not only do successful project managers acknowledge the possibility of project failure, they accept it readily. Mistakes often inspire professional growth, and in many ways, project management itself is synonymous with error recognition and creative problem-solving. Learning to identify and remedy project failure before it occurs is essential, as is professional agility and situational responsiveness. Most projects fail for one of five reasons, and each catalyst for failure contains its own solution, as indicated below.

Failure Catalyst 1: Poor Client Communication

Clients who provide vague, inconsistent or limited direction can derail a project before it gets off the ground. Yet clients often fail to realize their role in defining project scope and establishing outcomes, presuming that these fall within the scope of project managers. Occasionally, project managers are enlisted precisely because clients aren’t exactly sure what they’re looking for, how much time or money they have to give, when they expect deliverables and why the project is necessary.

The solution to poor client communication is, in a word, structure. Project managers should delineate the frequency and means of client communication, establish routine decision-points and integrate project requirements into a clear but detailed timeline subject to client approval. Clients who fail to communicate promptly or regularly are most apt to respond to precise yes-or-no questions, which facilitate decision-making and underline the importance of clear direction in a non-confrontational fashion.

If clients still communicate infrequently, the best project managers weigh their alternatives carefully and proceed with a course of action that balances what information they do have about the project with the need to remain flexible, avoiding any decisions that jeopardize their professional resources or reputation.

Failure Catalyst 2: Delayed Initiation

Projects that start slowly can still finish strong, but delaying initiation is always dicey. If a client delays, it falls to the project manager to outline the exact ramifications on upcoming processes and project outcomes, rather than assuming the client naturally understands that a slow start can cause a late finish.

Although expert project managers scrupulously monitor their workflow, they too are subject to professional contingencies, and knowing how to handle them is crucial. Attempting to camouflage or downplay delays can backfire; instead, engaging the client even briefly, whether to discuss project specifications, set initial deadlines or otherwise reinforce the project’s priority can ameliorate any concerns—as long as the follow-up is timely.

Failure Catalyst 3: Inflexibility

Projects are as individual, and idiosyncratic, as people; one never duplicates the other. Yet the replication of previously successful procedures in order to achieve equally successful outcomes appears logical, seducing professionals of every ilk and disposition. Seasoned project managers, however, repeat themselves only in the most general sense, distinguishing proven best practices, such as frequent stakeholder communication, from intractable standards, like status updates delivered every Monday morning via email.

Failure Catalyst 4: Dissatisfied Clients

Client dissatisfaction, although inevitable over a lifelong career, is among the many professional quandaries that expert project managers prevent, rather than mitigate. Clear, consistent guidelines and fee schedules for project revisions, extensions and major redirections preclude large chunks of unpaid labor, while ample time in the planning and design phase aligns project outcomes with stakeholder and client expectations. Careful planning is also far less stressful than spontaneous problem-solving post completion.

A detailed, precise description of finished products and project outcomes also minimizes the risk of client dissatisfaction. All project expenses should be presented alongside their attendant services, products or deliverables in a standardized fee schedule immediately upon client acquisition.

Likewise, cultivating a deep understanding of the factors that motivate clients, including the project’s long-term implications and strategic value, significantly improves the probability of satisfactory outcomes. Complex or far-reaching projects may even necessitate vision statements, drafted and disseminated by project managers and reflective of stakeholder motivation.

Failure Catalyst 5: Ignoring Risk

A certain degree of sensitivity is achieved only with experience, but even new project managers can train themselves to recognize potential problems before they actualize. Every member of a project team, from clients to front-line team members, possesses a unique vantage of the circumstances, potential pitfalls, requirements and processes involved in the project’s management, and soliciting feedback is the first step to identifying problems and generating solutions.

Then, successful project managers perform professional triage, parsing the most pressing issues from the pack and deriving practical solutions that prevent reoccurrence. It is here that the ongoing education afforded by failure is most evident, as what began as a mistake can become, through its remedy, the impetus for professional development. Simply put, the only thing that scares expert project managers isn’t failure—it’s failing to leverage the opportunities inherent in mistakes and errors.

Grant Webb is a guest Author for Copper Project and works for University Alliance and is a contributor to U.S. News University Connection. Grant is currently covering the medical industry’s transformation from paper medical record systems to electronic medical records, the rise in health informatics degree programs as well as opportunities to obtain health care degrees online. With so many project management career opportunities available today, online education has become a more popular and cost affective route than ever before.

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