According to PMI’s most recent Pulse of the Profession survey (PDF), organizations have been wasting up to 12% of their annual project investment due to poor performance for the past five years. While PMs may strive for 100% success, it’s no secret that sometimes projects fail. But a project failure doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Project failures can offer valuable lessons for future project planning.
So how can PMs better incorporate lessons learned from project failures into future projects? First, we’ll break down why projects fail, then explore how you can capture lessons as problems unfold.
Some Reasons Projects Fail
Loss of Knowledge – Knowledge is power when we share it. PMs should use their own experience, the collective experience of the team, as well as documentation from past projects to anticipate risks and potential setbacks as they plan new projects. But when lessons aren’t documented either during or after a rocky project, no one can learn from them.
Communication Issues – Sometimes, the time it takes to bring an external up to speed can lead to communication and knowledge gaps as projects unfold at a faster pace. Likewise, maintaining clear communication and workflow among different personalities across the team and stakeholders can be a challenge without systems in place.
Lack of Buy-in from Resources – A lack of team investment in a project is a main ingredient of poor performance. Foster buy-in by giving resources control and ownership. Keep lines of communication open so that resources don’t overburden themselves with work they can’t complete.
Lack of Stakeholder Investment – When stakeholders don’t involve themselves from the beginning, gaps in expectations can arise down the line.
Resource Skill Gaps – Project success depends on a good mixture of skills among resources. This ensures more adaptability and responsiveness if the project scope or project management culture evolves.
Problems with Perspective/Metrics – A focus on outcomes rather than pre-contract deliverables can present a skewed view of a project’s success, since unknowns can develop as the project scope evolves. Likewise, project KPIs can make or break a project. For example, as project size fluctuates, it becomes less useful to use cost as an indicator of success. What you measure throughout the project determines how you perceive the project’s accomplishments.
Solutions for Measuring Success and Failure
It’s all about perspective. Here’s how to make sure your using the right metrics for your project and/or methodology:
- During the Planning phase, have honest conversations about risk migration, anticipating how projects may morph and evolve from phase 1 onwards, as well as from clients’ briefs.
- Carefully consider your methodology. For example, the methodology you use for IT projects – which often take longer than expected – may not work as well for types of projects in which risks are easier to anticipate. Likewise, agile methodology can increase risk, like if there is not enough of a commercial approach to manage suppliers.
- Value project management culture and invest in good tools. Research shows that PMs see tangible increases in project success when they implement proven project management practices. That includes prioritizing the latest technological tools, like Clarizen project management software.
Capturing Lessons Learned
The most important thing about learning from your failures is creating and sticking to a system for recording lessons learned. Then, PMs and teams must decide who lessons should be aimed at (i.e. should they be shared internally, with the client, or both?), and incentivize reflection.
Record progress, problems and feedback throughout project phases. In agile and scrum methods, leaders can track feedback daily and implement changes more quickly, allowing them to capture feedback while it’s fresh in people’s minds. Some experts recommend gathering the project team and going through likely scenarios the project may present, then holding a workshop on how to best plan for the worst cases, taken from projects of similar scope and theme.
Think about when you’ll give and reflect on lessons. Both the beginning and end phases of projects can be useful places to discuss lessons learned and anticipate problems based on those lessons. During the Planning phase, teams can discuss changes based on stakeholders, requirements, budget and performance indicators, and then bring those implications over to Design. That way, lessons gradually become part of future planning and governance.
Post-project phases are also a great time to produce (and read) end-of-project reports, or give end-of-project surveys through an email service like Mail Chimp. Leaders can then hold discussion meetings, then migrate lessons into the Planning phase of future projects.
Consider stakeholders and clients. Different clients require different kinds of assessments. Some stakeholders request 360-degree review of the projects, while others prefer assessment on a case by case basis. Do your best to get stakeholders involved early to minimize surprise setbacks down the line.
With good systems for feedback and reflection in place, it is possible to turn past project failures into future project successes. Adopting project management software is a great place to start.
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