7 Tips for Avoiding Another Epic (Project) Fail

I really hate it when one of my projects doesn’t exactly go as planned. Happily, this rarely happens, so when it does, I tend to obsess over it, replaying the events ad infinitum. When a recent project seemed to fall short of expectations, I devoted countless hours (okay, maybe a few days) to understanding what went wrong so that I could avoid similar problems in the future.

The more I thought about it, I realized that pretty much all of the problems stemmed from communication problems of one kind or another, almost all of which could have been avoided. For this edition of Communiqué, I wanted to share some “rules of the road” I created to govern my future projects. Sometimes the hardest-won lessons are the best. If you collaborate with others for the success of your projects, I hope that you find a few pointers that you can borrow, modify or outright steal.

Please note: In these examples I refer to “clients,” but you can just as easily substitute the words manager, colleague, business partner, or anyone you typically collaborate with.

  • Beware of shiny new projects. Just because this new project may seem alluring (maybe it will bolster your reputation, give you greater visibility, or even generate more revenue), take a look at what you’re really getting into before you sign on. The project itself may in fact sit squarely within your “sweet spot,” but the client’s culture or environment may not be a good match. On the other hand, the client may be a perfect fit, but the project does not play to your strengths. Assuming you have the option to decline, weigh the pros and cons carefully before you decide. Don’t be seduced by a marquee project or coveted client if it doesn’t feel right.
  • Get the scope in writing and discuss it to death. Pretty obvious, right? And yet, it’s alarming how much we rely on brief emails, IMs and sound bites rather than having substantial discussions to make sure we understand things the same way and agree on important points. For example, we may agree that participants of a new training program will require a bit of assistance in using basic features of the web conferencing tool, but if we don’t discuss who, exactly, will provide this assistance, our participants may lose valuable time getting started while the rest of us wonder how the necessary support piece slipped through the cracks.
  • Create a work breakdown structure even for the most deceptively straightforward projects. In addition to the overall project scope, spell out your responsibilities and invite your clients to do the same. You may want to jumpstart a list for them to edit or add to. Make sure there are no hidden assumptions or gaps.  Use active language when listing responsibilities to avoid ambiguity. Example: Instead of “Workshop participants need to be invited and registered” try “Jane will create a draft email for client to send directly to all invitees. Max will confirm registration of all attendees and send final list to Jane and client. Client will monitor and track attendance during the session.” There’s no such thing as “too granular” when it comes to ensuring that all actions are assigned clearly and that nothing is missing.
  • Assess what resources you need to pull this off. Err on the high side. Do you need new skills, which may take hours, days or perhaps weeks to acquire, depending on the level of proficiency needed? If so, how will you access these skills? How will this affect your other work? If you think you will need some level of tech support, whether from your software provider, colleague, or client team, who will contract with the tech folks to ensure they are committed to the success of this project? If you’re likely to need to hire a consultant or borrow a colleague to support certain facets of this project, have a viable plan for making this happen. Include crucial details, such as how additional resources will be compensated, and by whom. Raise a red flag when projects are likely to consume an inordinate amount of your resources if the expected payback is uncertain.
  • Determine what kind of rewards will justify the effort. This is not just about the financial remuneration, though if you’re a consultant, this does matter. Will the project confer other benefits that make it worth your while, such as an opportunity to work with colleagues you respect and admire, a chance to garner visibility from senior management, or adding a big new client to your portfolio? Sometimes the financial compensation pales in comparison to less tangible benefits. Whether the intended benefits are concrete or experiential, make sure you feel that it’s a fair deal for everyone involved.
  • Scope creep calls for a reset. If a change in scope calls for a few extra minutes here, a half-hour there, usually it’s no big deal. But when a “slight change” in scope requires significantly more time or additional resources, it’s time for another conversation, fast. If the budget and deadline are firm, then discuss which parts of the project won’t get done or will need to get done by someone else. (You can be creative about negotiating a special perk in exchange for the extra work, such as a glowing testimonial for your website or the ability to re-use this work with other clients.) The sooner you call out scope creep for what it is, the better you and your client are likely to feel about the eventual outcome.
  • Make sure the executive sponsor buys in before you launch. If your client is not the ultimate arbiter when it comes to your measuring the success of your project, find out who is, and make sure s/he is on board with your plan. While you can’t force your client to make sure all the needed ducks are neatly lined up, you can suggest ways to help secure the needed support in advance. For example, you might volunteer to attend a meeting to explain your design principles or business rationale to the sponsor. Or perhaps you can create a bulleted list of benefits to help your client sell the concept to the holder of the purse strings. Do what you can to ensure that the key business sponsor is already a supporter of your work, if not a fan, before you launch.

Not all projects have happy endings. Some factors are simply beyond your control. But if you dig deeply and analyze the underlying causes, chances are poor communications will emerge as the culprit more times than not. Before you sign on to your next big project, establish at least a few governing principles, and consider sharing (perhaps in modified form!) with your clients.

P.S. After an open discussion with my client, he agreed to take on more of the responsibilities critical to the success of this project. Now it’s back on track. Phew.

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