05 May Traps and risks in project management
A variety of project management methodologies have been already elaborated. They incorporate multiple techniques which can help you in your daily work. We try to use them effectively, but sometimes it seems that projects do not develop as planned.
My goal is not to focus on the presentation of theoretical considerations. Nor do I intend to suggest which of the project management methodologies and techniques is the most or the least effective (if such classification is possible at all). Projects differ one from another and are carried out in various environments. There is no one and only effective approach to cope with challenges involved in projects, and selecting the appropriate methods and solutions can often be compared to taking measurements of a person who is constantly moving. However, I would like to draw your attention to several commonly encountered pitfalls that may pose risk for the project execution and are not always given sufficient consideration in individual methodologies.
Look at the project from many perspectives
Do all the project participants understand its goals equally? Do we know what is involved in the project execution? What added value will be created once the project is completed? We often take a shortcut by presuming that the project goal (whether determined in a contract or by another commitment) is recognized in the same way by everybody. My experience shows it is not often the case. First of all, you need to understand the goal yourself and be able to imagine what the reality will look like after it is reached. The next step is to agree on a common understanding of the goal with other project stakeholders, as well as to define or clarify how the goal attainment shall be measured.
It is worth remembering that the success of a project often depends on the achievement of numerous objectives that have not been formally defined. In many cases, the implementation of these “additional” objectives will coincide with the main goal of the project. However, when these are moved higher in priority, we may face some problems. I have observed that one of the mistakes we make is to assume that our point of view is the only right one. I strongly recommend that you should not restrict yourself just to your own perspective. Try to see how the project is perceived from a different standpoint. All you need to do is listen, ask questions and try to understand objectives of all the project participants. The more points of view you get to know, the more information you will obtain and they may be very useful during the implementation stage.
Project as a potential arena
In recent years, we can notice an increasing tendency among organizations to operate more and more on the basis of projects, implemented both internally or externally. One of the effects of this prevailing trend is that projects may become an arena for all sorts of “games”. These activities are not necessarily aimed at the implementation of the project goal. Whereas “games” played between a customer and a supplier are nothing unexpected (the employer usually wants to receive as much as possible from the contractor, while the contractor is willing to perform the necessary work only), we must also be aware that such “games” can take place inside the customer’s organization (e.g. struggle for influence, defense against being assigned any additional work), just as within the vendor’s company. A characteristic feature of this arena is that it allows for pursuing different types of objectives. It is certain that every person involved in a project wants to achieve success. The question is whether the success means the same effect for all (for example, a group of people may be successful if they manage to “survive” to the next project).
Understand the customer’s needs
The implementation of projects often involves making assumptions. However, there are situations in which we assume something that is either unnecessary or totally unjustified. There can be many reasons for doing so. For instance, we can “be sure of something” or make an assumption based on our own experience (remember that previous experiences will not always be a good advisor). This may also be caused by our laziness or by the lack of giving sufficiently high priority to selected activities. Can we, for example, assume that the customer’s expectations from the performance of particular tasks are the same as ours? Is the customer aware of what is required to be done and what we do not plan to do? Sooner or later we will have to verify our assumptions and, unfortunately, they may prove wrong if not agreed upon with the customer. It will not be a big problem if the assumptions that need to be changed do not have a key impact on the project. On the other hand, we may find ourselves trapped if we have built the project foundations on the basis of erroneous suppositions. In order to avoid such situations, it is best to confirm any assumptions we adopt as soon as possible. I pay special attention to that when managing a project. It is important at every stage of the project, but my experience has shown that the sooner our assumptions are accepted (those critical to the success of the project are usually established at the beginning), the less effort is required during the subsequent stages of implementation. In a problem situation, the best solution is to hold a direct meeting where the assumptions are transformed into specific arrangements.
First plan, then schedule
The planning process is often initiated by scheduling, which many people consider an element that increases the chances of the project’s success (schedules which have been created on the basis of good plans can indeed contribute to the achievement of success). Nevertheless, this may be illusory and we will find that out only after some time. Theoretically, we are aware of tasks that have been assigned. We know who and when should perform them. Everything is actually fine. If so, why schedules are frequently subject to change? Why the completion of the planned tasks does not bring us closer to, but often further from, achieving success? It is a deceptive shortcut to begin planning with the creation of a schedule, instead we should first plan the scope and methods to carry out the work and achieve the desired goal. In some circumstances, we may be tempted to take a short way because, leveraging on our past experience, we will be able to rapidly complete certain stages of planning, but on the other hand we must not forget that projects are, by nature, unique. Do not resign from effective planning, because it can be a costly mistake. A mistake as a consequence of which you may be “trapped by the schedule” which was not created on the basis of realistic implementation plan. Best practices indicate that the planning of work should be commenced in isolation from the deadlines and resources for their implementation. If it is not done properly, we may unwittingly restrict our range of potential solutions. In my opinion, we should always devote enough time to planning and treat it as an investment. Otherwise, we will probably lose much more time counteracting the consequences of such negligence.
Communicate your expectations
It would be an ideal situation for Project Managers to be able to engage the most experienced, effective and proven employees for the performance of tasks within each and every project. The reality does not always give us such opportunities. After all, organizations undertake numerous projects and it is difficult to imagine that a group of the best specialists in a given field would be kept ready for the implementation of each project. As a matter of fact, the project team is built for a specific initiative. It may therefore be the case that we have not had a chance to work together with all the team members as well as to develop common principles of action. Taking this into account, we should not assume that employees will perform the assigned tasks in line with our expectations if these are not clearly presented in advance. Hence, we need to ensure that all the necessary information and expectations are effectively communicated. Otherwise, it may lead to a situation where all the engaged employees will work hard and use their best efforts and despite that the achieved results will differ from the ordering party expectations. Of course it can be assumed that the team members will guess what we expect them to do, but as we all know making hasty assumptions may have its consequences (as I wrote above).
In my daily practice, I try to start the implementation of the next steps in a project by presenting my own expectations. I do it also when I notice that the communicated expectations are not fulfilled. Such an approach seems to consume a lot of time, yet it contributes favourably to the organization of work and its outcomes.
Meeting the completion deadlines is usually one of the key determinants of the success of a project. Bearing in mind that the process of the project execution often involves taking hundreds or even thousands of decisions, it is important to make them in due time. Having noticed that certain aspects of the project need to be changed, for example the way it is organized, we should take the corrective actions as soon as possible. If you take too much time to make a decision, when it is finally made new decisions may already be required (you cannot stop the passage of time in a project). If you are not able to take all the necessary decisions on an ongoing basis, you should delegate the relevant tasks and authority necessary to implement them. Successful implementation of the project requires that appropriate decisions are taken at appropriate levels at the appropriate time. I would like to draw special attention to the allocation of work and staffing of vacancies. In this regard, we can bring some simplification by assuming that the sooner a particular role is assigned, the faster the results of work can be expected.
We should also be aware that there is no need to worry that not all of our decisions will prove to be the best. They certainly won’t. Yet it is worth to move forward on the principle that you do not always get what you want, but you surely get the effects of your decisions.
Find the keys to success
Each project is a different story and a different set of challenges. This is one of the reasons why there is no ready-made solution that would guarantee a success. That is nothing to be afraid of anyway. By carrying out successive projects, we acquire knowledge which gives us the ability to explore new opportunities. Furthermore, our job experience will help us understand how theoretical knowledge can be effectively applied in practice. Still, we need to remember that due to the imposed expectations or the pace of project execution, we can be under pressure to take “shortcuts”. As a result of such choices we can get caught in one of the many pitfalls that can be pretty difficult to overcome.
The available literature, methodologies and techniques provide a basis and form the backbone of your project management. This, however, is not enough – you will need to flesh this skeleton out with the rules and principles to be followed when managing the project.
Marcin Płaczek, Project Manager, Healthcare Systems Division, Asseco Poland.
The examples of traps presented in this article have been derived from the author’s nearly 20-year-long experience in project management. He worked for several organizations, cooperated with numerous teams, and implemented a number of IT projects for various sectors, including public administration, telecommunications, utilities, and healthcare.