Part 1 of 2 in a series on common reasons for your projects' failure

It can be difficult to put your finger on the one main cause for project failure, because, well, there are just so many factors that can lead to failure in the first place. Among the laundry list of reasons projects go awry include a lack of communication, direction, employee burnout and unrealistic expectations. In the first of this two-part series, we will tackle two of four (un)popular reasons that projects fail: unclear objectives and ignoring the need for change management.

Good Intentions; Unclear Objectives

You most likely wouldn't plan a road trip without first identifying where you want go, mapping out your route and making a budget. The same logic applies when you are planning a project. A lack of direction and unclear goals are one of the top reasons why projects fail. While it may be impossible to predict every outcome, taking time early on to define and communicate objectives and goals can radically increase the chance your team successfully completes a project.

In order to create a clear path to project success, managers must clearly communicate project objectives and goals to the team. Everyone must understand the project vision, or there’s likely to be confusion clouding the path. The following five tips can help project managers create a solid plan based on strategic objectives designed to meet project goals:

  • Understand the difference between goals and objectives - Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms "goals" and "objectives" have some very key differences. According to a Forbes article, a goal is a broad primary outcome, or the "destination." An objective, on the other hand, is a measurable step you take to achieve a strategy. Objectives can be thought of as a "road map," with specific tasks that need to be completed to reach the end goal.
  • Start with the right questions - Asking the right questions will help you identify those project goals and objectives:
    • Why is this project important to the organization?
    • What problems will the project solve? What deliverables do stakeholders expect from this project?
    • Who will be assigned to this project? And who has a stake in the outcome?
    • How do various stakeholders goals differ? How are we going to measure success? How are these business objectives aligned to organization’s overall business strategy?
  • Clearly define project requirements with all stakeholders - Remove assumptions about a project by communicating objectives early on. This means having those difficult discussions to address differences in goals among management and stakeholders. While including more team members in these discussions takes time, participation is more likely to create ownership of project tasks along the way.
  • Map out a chain of communication - Create a communication system that team members can use to update stakeholders and management on where a project is heading and when changes are made. Avoid surprises by developing a system that creates accountability at every step of the project.
  • Establish clear deadlines and roles - Set up at timetable for when specific objectives are due and display it in a place where everyone in the project can easily see it. Also, ensure that each member is aware of his or her deadlines, budget and scope of responsibility.


Ignoring the Need for & Importance of Change Management


Change is a given. Although it can be a struggle for some, change in an organizational setting is absolutely necessary. New projects are constantly in motion to increase profits and improve your competitive advantage. Yet managing change tends to be placed on the back burner for many organizations. That mentality can really hurt business' bottom lines.

Data repeatedly shows that implementing change management strategies can enable organizations to successfully complete more projects. Prosci, an independent research company in the field of change management, gathered data over 8 years and found that initiatives with excellent change management are six times more likely to meet objectives than those with poor change management.

In the mid-2000s, a McKinsey study based on 40 large scale industrial change projects found that the ROI of large projects was 143 percent when an excellent change management program was used, but only 35 percent when there was a poor change management program, or none at all. A 2004 PricewaterhouseCoopers' study of 200 companies also found a clear link between change management, high performance and a high project management maturity level.

Despite all this clear data, many companies still spend a considerable amount of time and money training people in project management methodologies and tools, but rarely invest the same way in change management. As a result, many of the people risks are overlooked and lead to project delays or all together failures.

Change management should be part of any project management process to anticipate those people risks. But before you dive into ways for incorporating change management practices, define the key differences between project management and change management.

  • Project management is the organization and management of resources built around events and timelines that ensure an organization completes a project defined by time, budget, quality standards and scope. It's a method for getting projects done.
  • Change management is about implementation. It focuses on company culture and people to help an organization achieve the benefits expected from the project. It enables transition from one stage to another.

While project management and change management both aim to increase the likelihood that projects or initiatives deliver the intended results and outcomes, each discipline can function independently, Prosci says the most effective approach is to integrate change management and project management to create a unified approach to implementing change.

The following are some ways you can bring change management to your projects and overall organization:

1. Try some change management exercises with your team. A huge part of effective change management is anticipating people's negative reaction to change. It is human nature for people to react to change with fear and anxiety. These exercises can help your team understand their emotional reaction to change and learn how to think differently about what the future holds.

2. Find project managers with good interpersonal skills. The reason for a lot of project management failure is traced back to a lack of people skills, and understandably so. It can be challenging for many task-orientated project managers worried about timelines and budgets to focus on building strong interpersonal relationships at the same time.

Traditional project manager methodologies typically offer little guidance in how to motivate people or compassionately address a team member's fears and doubts over new projects and how it will affect their jobs in the future.

Finding project managers that are good at listening and understanding people helps prevent the unanticipated people-risks that could take a project off track. And at the end of the day, who doesn't want to build rapport with people working toward a common goal?

3. Get stakeholder and organizational support. Prosci benchmarking has found that the top reason for resistance to change by employees and managers is a lack of leadership commitment. Project managers need to show leaders the value of a structured approach to change management. That can be difficult if change management is seen as secondary and not a needed aspect of a project, especially if it costs money and resources. 

The Bottom Line

Establishing clear objectives is as important as creating processes and managing the teams that will meet those objectives. Just as critical as project objectives is integrating change management with project management. This partnership is vital for ensuring successful project completion and implementation, but it requires a commitment from everyone on the team. There might be a rocky start or two along the way but with practice and persistence, your organization can break free from the cycle of high levels of project failure with a people-focused approach to project management.

This article is Part 1 of 2 in the series by Dave Landa. Check back on Construction Business Owner for Part 2.