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Your monthly dose of Project Management articles.

Why Elephants Cause Project Failure (and a few other causes too)

I’ve been involved in Project Management for the last 15 years, in a number of industries, and I’ve seen the same issues occur again and again, causing projects to fail. I hope I can avoid some pain by sharing these lessons here!

Humans are resistant to change. 

Change takes effort, and we are inherently lazy and afraid of anything that challenges our habits and lifestyle. It’s just the way our brains are programmed to respond. Don’t take it personally! A fire and forget approach to change just won’t work, it’s like turning an oil tanker, it requires sustained effort over a period of time to change direction. Ultimately, it means Change needs to be actively managed if it is to be successful. 

Rubbish In, Rubbish Out.

The deliverable needs to be clearly defined before build starts. Scope provides the foundation for the construction, and shifting foundations will result in the build collapsing. Once defined, any changes to scope need to be carefully managed. It is easier by far to change an engine on a plane before it has taken off. The same applies to projects.

What’s in it for me?

Users won’t support change if they can’t see any benefit in delivering it. Engagement of all impacted stakeholders, at all levels, will be key to success. In particular, the end users must be engaged throughout and be demonstrably involved in shaping the solution, for they will be key to the adoption, and will know the detailed use cases and pitfalls.

Similarly, senior stakeholders must be engaged to support the project and provide direction and air cover. Governance is key; a formal structure of reporting and escalation, and above all, a shared accountability for success.

Pulling in the same direction?

The organisation needs to be aligned to the change. Impacted stakeholders need to be supportive, silos need to be overcome, and there needs to be a clear and sustained mandate for the project. This will be achieved through a strong business case and an effective portfolio analysis process, ensuring that a project is aligned with the strategic objectives of the organisation, is capable of delivering the stated benefits, and has the full support of the board.

Elephant In The Room

Stakeholders who demand large, complex deliveries in one drop because ‘it’s all urgent’ are deluded. I’ve seen far too many large deliveries never complete because they are too complex, with too many dependencies. Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Deliver small iterations and build incrementally, heck, you can even call it Agile if you like, but if there is one lesson to be learned, this would be it. It decreases risk substantially and allows benefits to be delivered early in the schedule.

The 80/20 rule

Pareto stated that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This is particularly true when examining business cases for projects. It is frequently possible to identify that 80% of the benefit will derive directly from 20% of the use cases, and, further, there will be diminishing returns as more and more use cases are delivered. The trick, therefore is to balance the delivery to a point where optimal cost vs benefit is derived.

I’d love to say that if you follow all of the advice above, your projects will run smoothly. Well sorry to disappoint you, but that’s why we employ PMs, as projects are inherently unstable beasts, but you might just avoid some of the major pitfalls that wisened veterans of Project Management all get battle scars from.



Published at with the consent of the author

Tim Olsen

About author

Head Of Projects/Portfolio/Programme

Tim Olsen is a Head of Project Delivery for a major UK outsourcer, and has 15 yearā€™s experience of leading teams to deliver Digital and Organisational Transformation in a number of industries including Retail, Energy and Telecoms. He specialises in establishing and growing the capability of project teams.
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