by Larry Puleo

Every year organizations, large and small, sponsor projects to achieve various types of strategic goals. While the intent behind these projects can be very different, quite often the results come out the same: the projects fail.

Statistics reported by the Standish Group International have placed the project failure rate due to disappointing results or abandonment to be as high as 75 percent.

Whether failure is defined as a complete project meltdown or the inability to achieve some or any of the original goals, the likelihood of failure points to the pitfalls that produce these results.

Pitfall 1 - Lack of project sponsor/steering committee

Implementing change initiatives requires coordination across organizational boundaries and collaboration among various people within the organization. Any initiative can be doomed before it begins without the appropriate level of executive involvement deciding who will sponsor the initiative and ensuring sufficient funding and resources to reach a successful conclusion.

Project success is not only the task of the project team. Executive management must ensure that project goals are linked to strategic goals and show through action that ownership and accountability for the project is in place. Executive managers must engage the people involved in making the project happen, gather information, evaluate progress regularly and recognize success or failure. They need to motivate the team, assist in solving problems and keep the team energized.

Pitfall 2 - Selecting the wrong project manager

Every team has a manager or head coach who blends all of the components together. In sports, this person motivates and leads the team and must be someone who can maintain a watchful eye over every facet of the game and allocate the appropriate resources to fit each situation.

Most organizations will randomly select someone to manage a project. In fact, a majority of people who attend my project management courses serve as project managers without the benefit of any project management training. It is for this reason that I have come to recognize project management as the "accidental profession."

Some organizations use seniority, not ability, in selecting project managers. Change implementation leadership requires a unique skill set that does not match the skills required to run an existing operation. The project manager must be able to work in an ambiguous environment, and as a change agent, must be prepared to challenge the status quo, hold people accountable for actions, manage through scope changes, produce big results with limited resources, and monitor cost and quality.

Pitfall 3 - Lack of dedicated team effort

Most people who are selected as project team members were hired to perform specific functional activities and then later called on to help implement change. However, this new responsibility is typically assigned "in addition to" instead of "in place of" current duties. This results in people being assigned to projects who don’t want to be there, who have not been trained and who must do so while managing some or all of their existing workload.

Companies that take new change initiatives seriously relieve team members of at least 50 percent of their daily job functions. Those selected to work on projects must be able to stay focused, as without dedicated and focused attention, project expectations and resource motivation tend to drift and fade away.

Pitfall 4 - Not minding the project store

Many organizations sponsor numerous projects with no formal project management process in place to influence successful outcomes. This creates problems at many levels, particularly when multiple projects are being executed at the same time. Because time is an essential element within the project lifecycle, it is important to know on a continual basis what each project member is doing. Time is money, and if the need is large and complex enough, this challenge may be best met through the establishment of a project management portfolio framework or the introduction of a project management office.

While project management might be called the accidental profession, successful projects do not happen by accident. Success in project management requires project teams that understand and interact well with the complexities of the project and organization, that effectively cope with change and deal with the unexpected problems that are inherent in all change initiatives, and that feed off visible support from and interact with project and senior leaders. To avoid the pitfalls, synergy and skill are required at all levels.

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