I’d venture to guess that if you have worked on more than one project, you have seen a “bad” project or parts of one. Some of us have had the luxury (think: learning experience!) of working projects that completely fail or stumble painfully along, wasting time, money, and your sanity until you almost want to put the poor project out of its misery.

This post is the first in a series that Celedon Partners will present regarding why projects fail, and importantly, how to achieve success. Anyone who has ever worked on a project team most likely can think of a host of reasons why projects fail. Consider some of the following statistics of project participants:

75% admit that their projects are usually or always “doomed right from the start!” (Been here)

Only 55% state that the business objectives of their projects are clear to them. (Done that)

Only 23% say they are always in agreement with others that a project is truly done. (Wait, what?)

70% of organizations have had at least one project fail in the past year! (Seriously!?!)

Before understanding why projects fail, we have to define success. Herein lies the first path to failure. There are many varying definitions of success, and there may not be true consensus. Many would say that it varies by project. Often it is said a project is successful when it is completed “on time, on budget, within scope and quality limits.” This is missing a critical component. That is, by whose definition? Consider some of the following definitions of success:

Was the money well spent?

  • Customer: “$150,000 for three months of work? That’s highway robbery!”
  • Consulting firm: “We worked lots of overtime, but got it all done for only $150,000 and in three months!”

Was a high-quality product delivered?

  • CFO: “The new CRM system will boost revenue 28%.”
  • Technician: “This new system might be great for the head honcho, but I still can’t get appointment details on my phone.”

These definitions are highly subjective and depend on who’s answering the question. It is telling that even Project Management Institute (PMI) does not actually define success in its current Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge. PMI states “Project success should be measured within the constraints of scope, time, cost, quality, resources, and risk as approved between the project managers and senior management.” It is critical that project stakeholders agree on that definition of success at the start of the project and throughout the project.

39% of projects fail due to improper project planning. Project planning establishes the total scope of the project, defines the project objectives, and creates the actions plans to attain those goals. Project planning is not a ‘once and done’ process. Typically it is iterative and details of managing the following are progressively elaborated throughout the life of the project:

•scope    •schedule    •resources    •quality    •cost     •risks    •communications     •procurement     •stakeholder engagement

So what the heck is progressive elaboration, anyway? It is a project management technique that refers to the continual refinement of project details and intricacies. As more about the project is learned, the more precise all aspects of it become. Ongoing planning (progressive elaboration) is often overlooked and disregarded.

Clients may feel they are getting the most “bang for their buck” during the actual production of deliverables. Some will not see the benefit of planning and design as a part of development at all. While I am certainly not advocating “process for process’ sake,” a balance must be struck. If a client hires a contractor to build a house, plans and design must be completed before construction begins. Imagine if the contractor just started bulldozing and pouring the foundation for a 3-bedroom rancher when the customer wanted a 5-bedroom Victorian. This seems absurd when described in a construction scenario, but it happens in software development far too often. Developers are sometimes pushed by customers or management to just start coding, reducing planning and design to absolute minimums. This will almost certainly result in rework or worse, scrapping work altogether.

Proper planning produces efficient, successful projects. Effective project planning takes as much as or more time and effort as project execution. To help ensure the success of your project, insist on the highest quality project management just as you do technical expertise.

Next time, I’ll discuss successfully managing all the change that progressive elaboration brings so your project stakeholders and project team agree on the definition of success not only at the beginning of your joint venture, but all the way through.