People Management: Why Projects Big and Small Fail

Transformation. It’s the buzzword of the day/of the year. In a nutshell, transformation initiatives are larger and more complex with more at stake than the grand projects of the past. And so far, are these current initiatives faring better than the great initiatives of two decades ago?

It’s uneven, to say the least.

Under the old management

Project management practices have become the norm in many businesses today, but the truth is that project success statistics haven’t improved much over the past 30 years. And the thing is, the project management discipline as a whole seems to address problems but fails to focus on the root cause of those failures. Until companies focus on the importance of leadership skills as a core task, projects will continue to fail. Project management is more about people management than methodology. Let’s explore some examples:

  1. Ford Edsel – has become synonymous with failure
    Developed and manufactured during the 1958-1960 model years, the Ford Motor Co. expected to gain significant market share and close the gap with General Motors in the American automobile market. Yet the Edsel never gained popularity with car buyers and sold poorly. Ford lost millions of dollars developing, manufacturing, and marketing the Edsel. The very word “Edsel” has become a popular symbol of failure. The company lost $350 million, the equivalent of $3.5 billion in 2022! Edsel’s failure is infamous as vehicles were designed and manufactured, dealerships were created and promoted without understanding the feasibility of the model.
    Reasons for Edsel’s failure: The Edsel was launched in the middle of a recession and people were looking for smaller cars. The Edsel was meant to be a surprise release, resulting in few focus groups to understand the voice of the consumer. Also, the quality of the Edsel was considered poor.
  2. Affordable Care Act (ACA) – On the first day of the deployment, only six people submitted and completed their applications. October 1, 2013 a.m.High demand on the website (five times higher than expected) caused the website to crash within two hours of launch. The law ultimately went over budget by $1.6 billion. So what happened? According to the Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services, the root cause of the law’s failure stems from Wrong direction. According to a article in government executive review: “Challenges were made much more difficult by poor management – ​​misplaced priorities, poor communication, insufficient procurement know-how and the reluctance of senior officials to receive “bad news”.
    Reasons for ACA deployment failure: The government site for registration for the Affordable Care Act has been published in a hurry. The focus was on meeting a plan’s deadlines, even though testing and quality were poor.
  3. The UK National Program for Computing (NPfIT) – The largest public sector IT program ever attempted in the UK. Originally budgeted to cost around £6billion, this National Health Service program was meant to help streamline the sharing and security of health information across the country. Despite the rollout spanning many years, the NPfIT program failed to deliver services and, before ending that engagement, ultimately cost UK taxpayers over £10 billion.
    Reasons for NPfIT Failure: There have been a host of program failures, but one of the main reasons included – from the start – a technical and operational disconnect between the project’s initiators (the UK cabinet) and its implementers (the health service workers ) regarding the operation of this massive health informatics program.
    The typical goal of failed projects is to address the symptoms most easily seen in these and most failed projects: scope drift, poor vendor performance, poor business requirements development, or difficult stakeholders, and poor project leadership. Although this can create improvements, it is usually a less effective result. The common thread running through these three failures is poor management of people and communication.

It’s about people

In the search for a consistent process and methodology for delivering projects, we forgot one fundamental truth: project plans don’t get the job done. People do! Project managers need to focus on developing their leadership skills and learning to manage teams and expectations.

  1. Communication: Projects and programs fail when communication fails/is non-existent/or not properly inclusive. In fact, I would rank this as the #1 reason the project failed. Projects fail at every stage of any project when the proper decision makers are not involved in the planning and design. They also fail if end users or affected people don’t listen early and often enough to understand the changes they will be expected to face. This is why all the above projects failed. If you don’t involve the right people in decisions and align them with the same expectations, someone (or more people) will be unhappy with the results in the end, guaranteed.
  2. Responsibility: Programs fail when people do not have a clear vision of their responsibilities. It may seem minor, but it becomes difficult to hold someone accountable if there are no clear definitions of what each person is responsible for. Being nebulous can be the death of any delivery effort. I’ve seen many companies that treat responsibility and accountability the same way: “I’ve done my part” doesn’t guarantee that others have done theirs or that the points of integration between all “parts” were coordinated.
  3. Commitment: Programs fail when the wrong sponsors and owners are hired. A simple but effective way to choose the ultimate decision makers for a project is to assess who has the most to lose if the project fails. By awarding the sponsorship to whoever will feel the most pain if the effort fails, it will ensure that they are more invested in getting everything done right in the first place.

People, process and technology

I believe it’s time for project delivery to revamp because as projects have gotten bigger and more complex, the practice of change management has grown. Change management is a newer phenomenon of delivery of strategic initiatives, but I would argue that change management was born because project management stays focused on the wrong things. Project managers are trained in the process. Businesses will make technology decisions before understanding the necessary requirements. This combination emphasizes process and technology while forgetting about the most important component.

Projects must follow the phrase: “People, process and technology”. Project managers tend to focus on two of these three elements and neglect the human component, to the detriment of the project. Change management focuses on people. However, if you have focused project delivery on people, process, and technology (in that order!), you may not need a change management practice in the first place.

We’re seeing more and more projects include change management in their initial planning to address some of these issues, but truth be told, it’s often used as a band-aid to a bigger problem. Frequent and consistent messaging to all relevant user levels should drive these transformation efforts. It’s not just about reaching consensus, but the effort must include a team (both stakeholders, employees, third parties, and end users) that is effectively communicated with.

stay on track

It can be difficult to stay on track with a project and to remember to include all three legs of the project “stool” (people, process and technology), so keeping the following warning signs in mind can to help :

  • Scope creep. The main cause could be:
    • Key stakeholders weren’t aligned (or possibly engaged) from the start and things were missed
    • There was no clear process in place to properly assess changes to ensure their necessity
  • Dishes. The main cause could be that:
    • End users and resources affected by a major transformation were not made aware soon enough and are pushing back because they did not feel convinced by the end result
    • The training was not provided or was imposed on them on 11e hour
    • Users don’t see the value of the new process or system
  • Bad business requirements:
    • The planning was not considered useful and was therefore not carried out correctly
    • Operational requirements were not documented

This list could go on and on, but if you’re looking for one common trait, it’s that people and their level of involvement is vital.

Let’s continue the discussion

Even when projects are performing poorly, having a regularly scheduled checkpoint to assess the value of continuation is a communication task not to be ignored. Silence when things are going badly will only exacerbate the situation. As in the examples listed above, and in our own experience when called upon to save a sinking ship, clear, consistent and honest communication is usually the fastest way to get the job done.

Written by Laura Dribin.
Did you read?
The Art of Teams by Leo Bottary.
5 ways to build an infallible marketing strategy.
Who Should Decide How and Where We Work by Val King.
The Thing You Need to Fix Before Your Next Change Program by Dr. Paige Williams.

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