Any project team can put together a plan for how to get from point A to point B; drawing straight lines is easy. But too often, project risks are not considered, and mitigation strategies are not prioritized appropriately. If a project is worthy of your time, money, and energy, then it is worth considering some of the risks that may contribute to its potential failure.
We recently reviewed a project plan put together by one of our vendors. At first we were impressed with how fast they claimed they could finish the project. The plan looked solid and all the necessary steps seemed to be accounted for. Upon further inspection, it became apparent that the plan included an overly optimistic schedule that did not account for any risk at all. In fact, it didn’t even account for known risks that would undoubtedly impact the schedule.
Starting with an unrealistic schedule is one of the first ways a project can quickly derail—but not the only reason. We always consider and plan for uncertainty (risks, delays, etc.) in our project planning. To avoid creep and project failure, our PMO team focuses on delivering project plans that include schedule management, budgeting, communication plans, and accountability. We’re sharing five strategies we’ve found helpful to ensure project success.
5 strategies to avoid project failure
We’ve found these strategies help our teams and clients avoid unwanted risks and unpleasant surprises.
- Real-world schedule management
- Trackable budgeting
- Communicating with a purpose
- Avoiding “The Creeps”
- Establishing and supporting a culture of accountability
1. Real-world schedule management
It’s not uncommon to begin a project by creating a schedule that lists all the activities that need to be done, then placing them in a nice straight line or Gantt chart. In the above example, the plan presented to us was accurate in this regard. Unfortunately, this is rarely how projects transpire in the real world.
It is safe to assume that shortly after initiating your project, something unplanned will put your schedule at risk. The best way to mitigate this risk is to proactively work to identify the various items that are likely to pop up. Make a real effort to predict all the scenarios that could cause delays. Some commonly overlooked but frequently occurring scenarios that could affect your schedule include:
Vacations, holidays, PTO
Ask your team members, client stakeholders, and vendors if any planned time off should be accounted for. The longer your project is, the more likely it is that there is significant time off to account for.
3rd party contract negotiations
If you need to procure software or services from a third party, expect this to take longer than you initially thought. If you end up being right with your optimistic scheduling, then you can give your team some breathing room. But, more often than not, dealing with third parties—especially if they are new relationships—takes longer than expected.
Client/partner conferences, training, or events
Much like vacation and holiday planning, it is important to account for other events on your client or partner’s calendar. Ask about conferences or mandatory training, and be sure to track them in your schedule. If key milestones land during these times, you’ll want to have a contingency plan agreed to in advance.
Does your project include time to speak to customers or stakeholders? These tasks often take longer than expected, especially if the research participants are not being compensated for their time. Unless you have a proven approach for quickly lining up research participants, consider adding contingency to the schedule on these types of tasks.
QA and acceptance testing
Make sure you have enough time at the end of your project to complete all the necessary QA and acceptance testing. Even if your team is confident they’ve completed the project 100% to the specifications, others may want to confirm this too. In addition, it is not unusual for an entire system to be retested if a new feature is significant. Make sure you understand all the various testing phases and how long each typically lasts.
Does your project involve writing copy or producing media? If so, assume this process will take longer than expected. A true content strategy isn’t a light lift. Content mapping, SME interviews, and drafting take time—add on reviews and editing, which could be one round, or three—and you may find your team crunched on time. Planning for buffer time will ensure content creation doesn’t derail your timeline. Get started as soon as possible and prioritize the approval milestones.
Reviews and approval
Depending on the nature of your project, you may need to have deliverables reviewed by a compliance board, which may follow strict regulatory or legal review schedules. Often, these review boards meet infrequently and are in high demand. Therefore, it is critical that you understand who your decision makers are and who needs to be involved with approving features, designs, content, etc.
When creating your plan, make sure these important milestones are tracked, that the stakeholders are aware of their responsibilities early in the process, and that adequate time is allocated for reviews, feedback, and revisions. Missing a review board meeting could prove difficult to make up, so prioritizing these milestones and ensuring efficient approval processes will be essential for successful project management and delivery.
2. Trackable budgeting
When creating your project budget it is important to break it down into increments you can easily manage so that if budget adjustment is needed, you can course correct it and avoid a limited budget or overspending. Establishing large buckets such as research, design, and development doesn’t allow you enough fidelity to gauge if you’re on track. Be sure to break down your budget into small, easy-to-define components and frequently review progress against these budgets. For example, if your project contains the three large buckets mentioned above (research, design, and development), consider adding smaller components such as:
- Stakeholder workshops
- User interviews
- Competitive analysis
- Information architecture
- Visual design
- Platform setup
- Page development
- Content Ingest
The goal is to set up your budget at a level where you can identify budget risks early enough to course correct. The moment you see that you are going off track, take action to identify why you are not hitting your budget goals and revise your plan to ensure that you can get your project back on a healthy trajectory.
3. Communicating with a purpose
Clear and concise communication is critical for any high-performing team. Often, poor communication can result in delays or setbacks. Make it a habit to ensure all communication has a clear purpose for what you expect in return, and encourage your teammates to do the same. If you are expecting a response from someone, then say that in the message. If an attachment needs to be reviewed, make it clear early in your communication that the recipient is expected to review it. Is a response time-sensitive? Clearly state when the response is expected.
If you don’t set clear expectations for what individuals should do and by when—you’ll have little hope that they will comply with your expectations. You can improve the effectiveness of your communications if you spend a little time at the beginning of a project to establish a communication plan and keep some basic communication concepts in mind. This plan should include the following:
Alignment on tools
There are many options for sending written communication—email, text, Slack, Teams, Basecamp, Jira, etc. To streamline communication and avoid confusion, establish rules for which tools your team will use and what type of communication is for each channel. Be sure to ask about limitations as well. Some folks can’t accept large attachments or access web-based platforms from behind their company firewalls. Communicating these limitations early in the project will save you time and frustration.
Establish a meeting cadence that allows for timely communication of information without being so frequent that the meetings lose value. We often find a weekly or bi-weekly meeting sufficient, but that depends on the project type and teams involved. Make sure your meetings have a clear purpose and agenda. Also, don’t be afraid to end a meeting early if all the planned topics are covered. Your team will appreciate brief and efficient meetings.
Roles and responsibilities
Creating a stakeholder map will help ensure the right people are involved when necessary and, conversely, avoid harassing folks with tons of emails and communications that don’t relate to them. People will be more likely to read your messages if they are confident the information is useful to them.
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In addition to a communication plan, you should also keep these two concepts in mind:
Tailor your communications to your audience
Are you sending a status update to a group of very busy executives? Keep your communication short and sweet. Are you communicating complex business requirements? Be detailed and thorough. Whatever you are sending out, consider the recipient by tailoring your communication to fit their needs.
Foster a culture of honest communication
Encourage your team to ask questions. There is no reason to be embarrassed for not understanding something—your team should be reminded of this. Repeating what you’ve heard in your own words is a great technique for ensuring you fully understand what has been said to you. Do this and encourage your team to do the same. You will see a lot fewer “miscommunications” happen, and as a result, your project will go more smoothly.
4. Avoiding the Creeps
Who are the creeps? And why should you avoid them?
Well, most project managers or product owners are familiar with scope creep. It is nearly impossible to predict every requirement up front when scoping a project, so there is often a very good reason for individuals to request additional features as a project progresses. In fact, more modern project management philosophies make room for this and incorporate various levels of requirements restating as a fundamental part of the methodology.
Even if you’re using a more flexible methodology there needs to be rules of engagement and a limit to the amount of churn that can be introduced into the project. Make it clear early on what your tolerance is and the process for reviewing and accepting scope changes. This should be established before the first scope change request occurs.
During or shortly after the project kickoff, have your stakeholders review and approve a change control process. Use it no matter the size of the request, even if it’s small. Trust us, you’ll be happy you did.
Having a change control process does not mean there is no flexibility in accepting change requests; it simply means that change requests will be managed and evaluated for impact against your existing timeline and budget before being accepted. Without a formal change control process you will be forced to have “negotiations”, which can often be quite uncomfortable, every time a change in scope is requested.
The other creep is hope creep, which can be just as menacing. Hope creep is when a project starts to fall behind schedule or go over budget, but the team fails to acknowledge it in the hope that they will be able to correct the issue in the future.
Often project teams fail to properly communicate when a project starts to fall behind—either in an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or to preserve confidence in the team. Avoid this at all costs. The earlier you identify a project risk, the better the chance to mitigate it. Typically project performance will not improve unless a concerted effort is put towards remediating it.
As a project leader, it is crucial to establish, demonstrate, and support a culture of total accountability among all team members and stakeholders. Whether it’s designers and developers working on a new product or a business owner making an important project decision, everyone should be held to the same high standards. Ensure everyone is clear about their responsibilities and effectively communicates their acceptance of tasks.
This emphasis on accountability should begin right from the project’s outset, with the entire team agreeing on the expectations of total accountability—delivering on promises and commitments within agreed timelines, leaving little room for any lapses. If you notice a team member not meeting these expectations, address it promptly.
Enhance team efficiency to reduce risk and ensure project success
While keeping these five themes in mind can help you avoid significant project issues, what’s even more critical is developing a habit of proactively managing risks and fostering a culture of clear, open communication and total accountability. By incorporating these principles into your project management approach, you can enhance your team’s efficiency, minimize obstacles, and increase the likelihood of successful project outcomes.
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