Why Projects Fail So Often?

I must give Marc J. Schiller some credit. His article appearing in CIO Insight July 2012 "Why IT Stakeholder Management Fails: Blame Mindset Mismatches" was one of the key drivers to rewrite the content in more general terms and apply it to other domains. 

The Stakeholder and Consultant / Designer / Problem Solver: 
Why Projects Fail So Often.

Fact: Stakeholders perceptions govern the real possibility of any project's success.

Fact: A lot of time is spent managing the expectations and behaviors of stakeholders.

Fact: The absence or mishandling of stakeholders, their expectations and desires results in loss of credibility for project leadership.

What's a project leader to do?
Blame someone else, anybody else, stakeholders, team members, management, the contract ... anything, anyone.

Failure: Is There A Conflict of the Minds?

Blaming others is a convenient response, but it seldom yields much benefit. Why not look at the problem from a different perspective? Just why do people think the way they do? iIt isn't that different people think incorrectly so much as they have a different perspective and that leads them to interpret what the see and hear differently than you do. So, it's no surprise the misunderstandings we all encounter are so prevalent and why so much time and space is taken up thinking about stakeholder management, or in other contexts, 
change management.

Mindset Conflict #1:  "This is My world and How You fit in."
So many times the professional problem solver wants the object of their work to understand something of their world and how it works. Unfortunately, your client could care less. They don't want to understand who you are and how you work, they want you to understand them and how they work. Your challenges don't mean much to them, but their challenges are the soup of confusion of their lives. They want the confusion to go away. You are supposed to be there to make that happen. The last thing they want is to have to learn something else, their brains are already bursting. 
So get over yourself. Remember why you got the engagement in the first place and only focus on what is going to produce benefit or value for your client. 

Mindset Conflict #2: Results Always Trump Process
Complex problems are always tangled with processes. After all you wouldn't even be talking to this client if the issues were simple. Often these engagements have processes where Some of them don't work, others don't produce any real value or usable result and other processes aren't even included. What's a PM to do? Clients want you to take ownership of a project. Even when you spare them the gory details (Conflich #1), they still just want results without much, if any work from their group.  
So how do you get results which will matter? How do you get the stakeholders out of their silos? Can they even tell you what you need to know to produce the results they think they want. The real issue here is who is going to own the results, you or the stakeholders? If the stakeholders are going to own the results, how do you get them engaged? The typical stakeholder response of , "I don't care how you do it, just make it happen." doesn't help, but creates a chasm of distrust and sets up everyone for a guaranteed failure. 

Mindset Conflict #3: When you think the project is almost finished, the stakeholders are just waking up.
The project is in the home stretch. You kept everyone aware, informed and you think engaged. The new change is about to be rolled out. Systems will go live in a couple of days, The training seemed to be a success, and people are getting excited about your work. But you hear some scuttlebutt from some the trainers that something didn't seem to go so well with some of the modules. Your phone is ringing and a department head is asking you, "What were you thinking? You are telling my people they have to change the whole workflow of their day. This just won't work for us at all. What are you going to do about this?"
  You know they signed off at every major milestone, they even gave you great rating on your training. What's wrong? How did this get so out of control?
All that certainly happened, but once again your perception and theirs didn't match. For the stakeholders, this was just a 'dry run' not the real thing. Something to look at. Finally, on the last days a few people wake up and understand what you are training them on isn't a probable solution, but THE SOLUTION. And in their eyes, it just isn't right, no not at all. 

Up until the very end they were only paying attention with about 50 percent of their awareness. You thought they were really engaged, after all they did ask pretty good questions which you accommodated in the final product. What went wrong?
Meanwhile your production teams are getting ready to pop champagne corks. They met their budgets and timelines, it's time to celebrate. Another mismatched expectation. You are really between a rock and a hard place between the stakeholders and the work producers. 

Does this sound familiar? Unfortunately, this is the reality for about 70 percent of change initiatives. Despite the best intentions, focused communication, thorough training and intended stakeholder management, the results are a disaster and your credibility, your champion's credibility and even the executive suite's credibility are all called into question. Recovery from these situations is almost impossible if this is an internal corporate effort. Someone's going to suffer the consequences, the only question is who will be the survivors?

In the next column, we will look at what you can do to address these three root issues of stakeholder management when seeking a big change.

This is a continuing series of articles as a Connection about Chaos and Change Management in the workplace. Other ideas here include change management, Brain Reprogramming, Agile and collaboration, neuroscience and Project Management  as applied to complex or wicked problems.

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