Mistakes. I’ve had a few. Probably more than a few but who’s counting? Last week I was reflecting on the biggest project mistakes I’ve made at work, and realised they had some common themes. I try to learn from these experiences so here is my view.
1. Not enough demand pull
All successful projects have the right balance of ‘push’ from the project team and ‘pull’ from those that want the project to be a success. If you don’t have the right amount of demand pull, the project usually ends with champagne corks popping in the project team, and deathly silence or worse from the rest of the organisation. I implemented a travel expense management portal once that met all the corporate requirements and was voted best in class at the trade fair next year, but was universally loathed by the users. They didn’t want it, and didn’t use it. So the lesson: find a way to deliver what people actually want.
2. Arbitrary timelines
Every project has to juggle the trade-off between time, cost, function, quality and user experience. If your timelines are arbitrarily short, it inevitably costs you somewhere else. A few years ago, inspired by an episode of The West Wing, I channeled my inner Leo McGarry, stood in front of a large project team and wrote the number 512 on the board. What was that?? It was the days left before the go-live of the new system. The impact of this was so powerful apparently that from that moment on, no one was brave enough to tell me that we were never going to make it… The timeline was essentially arbitrary, and had not been determined based on the project needs, but was taken from the original business case presented to the Executive very early on. So the lesson: understand the real timelines and manage the impact of this on the other objectives.
3. No truth teller
The scariest experience as a Steering Committee is overseeing a project that ticks all the governance boxes, has excellent reporting mechanisms all of which show consistent green and amber traffic lights, users are all signed up for testing, only to discover one month out from completion that the project was about to implode. And everyone knew. Except you. Human nature is that no one really likes bad news, and no one likes giving it. And also, most people are optimists. So the tendency is often to work harder and try to resolve problems in house, and not pass on concerns. The problem is if everyone else is doing that, you are in real trouble. So the lesson: find a truth teller or two who will tell you what the teams really think, and do project health checks from time to time where you eyeball the people doing the work.
4. Not enough focus on capability
People, People, People. It’s all about people. I have seen fully staffed project teams not have enough capability to undertake a piece of work, and then a team half that size deliver a result. Resourcing a project is not just a numbers game – it is about capability. If your project involves fundamental change in approach to a piece of work, you need to help your people develop to be able to do that. Coaching, training, mentoring all need to be part of the project journey. So the lesson: develop, develop, develop.
5. No shared vision and lack of consistency from the top. The best project I have ever been involved with had the clearest vision and the greatest consistency of leadership. They are critical ingredients. Some leaders think their role is mainly at the initial business case stage. Winning the funding is the hard part – OK project team now get on with it. And developing a clear vision is very demanding. But it is fundamental to success. So the lesson: put the hard work in up front to gain agreement to the vision and major benefits framework.
Mistakes can be a gift, so long as you accept them. The greatest mistake would be not to.