Alexandre Aschenbach

Are Projects Designed to Fail?


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This is a much discussed subject, but it seems to have no ending. I do not intend to find an answer, but it is impossible to let the subject go.

It does not matter which kind of project we are talking about because even if they are either professional or personal, the behaviors are almost the same.

Projects have, like everything, a life cycle. I believe that by analyzing a project’s life cycle, we will find many reasons which may cause its failure. In this way we can avoid the pitfalls that may be triggered, after all our main object is to achieve great results with controlled quality, cost and time.

A project is born due to a necessity, an improvement, an idea or whim. In a company it’s goal is to obtain more profit. In our personal life its usual aim is for a better quality of life.

The pitfalls start to appear already at the first step, that is, when we try to transform our needs into strategy, for that is the way we justify the project.

Right at the beginning we must try to establish our real objective, realistically, defining exactly what we want to achieve.

The first trap happens by beginning to plan a project without establishing its final objective. It is of no use to simply want it to happen, it is necessary to have a minimal realism and assurance that it is possible to solve the problem and achieve success.

More than this, it is needed to involve everyone who may be affected either directly or indirectly by the problem or by the solution we want to achieve.

This step is like the beginning of a car journey and we must not get on the wrong road or leave anyone behind.

This period of making and structuring ideas will take a lot of time because it is a phase when we imagine and “translate” our wishes into reality.

That said we can identify two possible faults:

  • The project will not get the “expected results”…
    • because the “expected results” were not defined in a realistic, clear and objective way.
  • The project will not solve the “proposed problem”…
    • because not all people involved in the problem participated, therefore they were not motivated and their point of view was not considered.

Once we have defined exactly what we want to achieve and considered all the variables it is time to plan the details of the project’s execution.

It is the moment to detail the project, and it may take even more time than it has taken until now. How to translate our thoughts into details?

Now it is time to be very specific, because it is the moment to define the details:

  • When - schedule
  • What - containing all the tasks
  • Who - human resources
  • How much - involved costs

We must consider all possible changes into the company’s organizational structure and the economic and technological outlook. A project must not plan to use resources which may be unavailable. For example, we must not start a project counting on someone who we know will be fired, or using a financial resource which we know will be used in another area. If we know beforehand we must not compromise such resources.

In the same way, on the personal side, it is important to know who will execute the project, and to consider that the personnel and funds involved must be available at the right time in order to keep everything on schedule.

Also, could the involved resources become more expensive during the project? Could the predicted technology resources become obsolete? For short projects this should not be a problem, but in longer ones this could prevent success.

In a company, we have to consider the dependency between activities and departments. The project’s activities invariably occur in a certain order and not every time they will be executed by the same person or the same department. Therefore the consideration of interpersonal relationship difficulties between the departments may be crucial for a successful achievement. Relationship problems must be considered and solved before the project starts.

If it is so in a company, then a personal project must also go through that analysis. Can you imagine putting people who are incompatible to work together? Unless you are a born peacemaker, do not try it.

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Here are some more hidden pitfalls:

  • The project will get to an end, but so slowly that it will not have the desired effects…
    • …because the team changed partially or totally during the project’s execution;
    • …because the predicted technology became obsolete or modified, forcing the project to be totally revised or amended;
    • …because the scheduled time for the activities was underestimated;
    • …because the predicted technology became obsolete and the project was not adapted to it;
    • ...because the funds were not properly reserved or were diverted somewhere else;
    • …because in the middle of the project the team was not aligned for the final objective.

Well, it may sound absurd, but it all happens, and frequently.

Recently someone told me about a project where the key professional was fired in the first week of the project’s execution. Rather than stopping the project or reviewing its execution, it was continued resulting in a disaster.

Everything planned? We already know where we want to go? We have already defined the resources that will be needed? So we are ready to start our project. Now the problems will become more evident, it is in this phase that we will know if our planning was well or poorly done.

During the execution most problems tend to occur due to lack of monitoring. The Project Manager must always be present, checking that everything is going as planned, that the resources are available and that the execution is going ahead in the right direction and at the expected speed.

To be sure, problems will happen, but it is the project’s manager’s ability and experience that will make them either more or less complex. There are always alternative paths; there are ways to continue the project’s execution avoiding changes and delays which would normally cause disastrous consequences.

Once the project is finished it is time to check on the results. Needless to say that here one will only be surprised if he did not pay sufficient attention at the project’s beginning.

When evaluating a project we need to look at the reasons why it succeeded or failed, why things went right or wrong. This experience becomes increasingly important when we understand that projects will always be needed in our lives.

It is easy to understand that the most challenging time is the project’s beginning, when we are defining our goals, it is the time when we endeavor to prevent faults.

He who knows what he wants to achieve and how to get there, tends to have more success even if he is not the best performer. This is because he will take into account his own weaknesses.

On the other hand, he who is not sure what he wants to achieve will get somewhere not always better that what he had at the beginning, considering the costs and efforts done in vain.

Choose capable people willing to help you in your projects. None of us are capable of executing a good plan by ourselves, much less are we capable of executing projects without planning to achieve success, as the definition of success will not be known in this case.

To the professional who dares to work on a project without proper planning it is like being hired as a driver for a car race where he does not know the track, the car needed, the other competitors and worse, does not know where the finish line is.

For the professional who hires, he must remember that every project must have a coherent and comprehensive plan. It is no good hiring the best driver and forget to tell him where to race, with which car, against which other competitors and, last but not least, where the finish line is.

Do not fall into the traps a project can trigger.

If it is a personal project, do your best to plan and execute it in order to achieve success.

If it is a professional project, be professional, hire professionals, train the teams, but most important: know the result you want to get and plan the path in detail.

A project’s success is not a matter of “wanting”, it is a matter of planning.