The people aspect of project failure

The reasons for project dalays may be human, not technical, says Paul Glen

As a consultant, I regularly get calls to help rescue struggling projects. These rocky initiatives usually involve at least a million dollars of direct cost, if not tens of millions, but more important, future business prospects and personal careers are often at stake.

The managers involved in these projects have taken substantial personal risks to sell some senior executives on the idea that this thing can be done and that they can deliver it.

As often as not, multiple companies are involved in these efforts. By the time I arrive, project sponsors, CIOs, project managers, technical staff, consulting firms’ account managers, software vendors, hardware suppliers and independent contractors are all standing in a circle pointing fingers of recrimination at one another.

By the time clients get around to calling me, they’ve usually gone through a few stages of revelation.

The first stage is frequently initiated by a missed deadline. The project is trundling along and then some major deliverable either doesn’t show up as scheduled or is bypassed completely. Early optimism gives way to concern and determination not to let things get out of hand.

This first revelation precipitates a series of urgent meetings to review the status of the project plan and make corrections to it. Dates are adjusted. Tasks are shuffled. Scope-creep may be constrained, but rarely is there a fundamental re-examination of the premises on which the project was founded.

Even more rarely are the human relationships within and surrounding the project examined. Consideration is limited to the product and the process of the project.

Sometimes the first stage of revelation gets repeated through various incidents before the second revelation appears.

It takes another kind of event to elicit this second stage. Sometimes customers complain about the project approach, the cost, the product or the service. Sometimes key personnel remove themselves from the project, quit their jobs or feud with one another. Sometimes contractual relationships are opened up for re-negotiation.

These second events reveal that the problems extend beyond the facts of the project to the human and business relationships among people and organisations.

It becomes clear that feelings have been hurt, mutual expectations have been violated and relationships have been strained, broken or severed. And these problems can’t be resolved with schedule changes, plan revisions or budget extensions.

However, managers usually respond to the second type of revelation in the same manner as they do to the first type. Planning ensues, but the shredded relationships may prevent re-planning, or the animosity keeps resurfacing.

More and more new problems appear, or things settle into a continual state of crisis.

Eventually, someone recognises that human problems can’t be resolved with money, time or scope changes. Doing the same thing over and over is not going to lead to success. That’s when I get the call.

To avoid reaching this sort of impasse, there are a couple of key things to understand.

First, the two kinds of project crises are almost always born of the same underlying condition. The missed deadlines and busted budgets are usually not merely the result of under-estimation. They are frequently the early warning signs of strained relationships. And the anxiety of the missed deadlines further burdens those relationships.

Second, the hurt feelings that accompany the second stage of revelations are perfectly normal. They result from violated expectations about what will be done, how and when it will happen, how people will relate to one another and what common values are held.

If you want to avoid calling me for a crisis intervention (not that I mind), think about the human issues, the mutual expectations and their violations at the first sign of trouble, rather than waiting until ill feelings become entrenched problems.

Paul Glen is the director of the Developing Technical Leaders Program and author of the Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology

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