WHY STRATEGIC PROJECTS FAIL
Management inexpertise in action
By Ruth Tearle
Teams from different areas of the organization often have to work together on a strategic project. The project team gets together. They discuss the project, assign roles and responsibilities to those who will do the actual work, and once this has been done, everyone goes away feeling quite satisfied. Yet when the project team fails to achieve its goals, and the organization fails to achieve what it expected from its strategies, everyone seems surprised. What went wrong?
This article highlights what prevents project teams which are made up of people from different silos within the organization, from achieving the goal of their project.
Sometimes the funniest stories demonstrate the most powerful truths. In the video entitled "The expert" by Lauris Beinerts, we see how inexpert management teams often approach a strategic project. And how their behaviour causes the strategic project to fail.
First watch the video below. Then read the article. Then think about how this type of behaviour applys to projects you've experienced in your own organization.
1. Watch the video: The expert.
2. Read this article: Why strategic projects fail
Let's apply the key themes from this video to managing strategic projects inside organizations. Here are 10 reasons why management inexpertise causes strategic projects to fail.
1. Lack of experience.
The people managing the projects often don't have relevant experience. So they don't know what it takes for that type of project to work. Often managers with no IT experience are tasked with overseeing a technical project. Or an operational manager may be in charge of a cultural change initiative. In the video "The Expert", the only person with previous experience on a similar project - is called the expert. But the rest of the project team don't value his expertise.
2. Fear of leaving something out.
Due to their lack of experience, the project team members are scared to leave out anything, that might in any way, relate to their project. In the video, they even bring 'cats' into a project on straight red lines - because some market research had indicated this might be a good idea for something.
In many organizations, leaders don't understand that successful teams are those that are able to focus on the 20% of tasks that will work, and that will contribute towards achieving 80% of the goal of the project. This lack of focus means they gather everything they can think of into their project. This not only causes confusion amongst those doing the work, but also often prevents the project goal from being achieved at all.
For example in a cultural change project, the project team may spend most of their time discussing every tiny aspect that could in some way contribute to any organizational culture, anywhere - from storytelling at work, through to cultural measurement instruments, from employee engagement through to leadership development. But what they often leave out is what is actually required to make the project work. For example, understanding what type of culture the organization actually needs to support its strategy, and how to build this type of culture.
3. Compromise the goal to meet everyone’s agendas.
Often teams comprise people from different areas of the organization. Each individual represents a different stakeholder, department or silo. Each has their own agenda. Each team member tries to push this agenda without any regard to how this will impact on the overall goal of the project. So the goal of the project often gets shaped and changed to suit the agendas of the most powerful people at the meeting.
4. Failure to understand how the project goal links to the organization’s strategy.
In the video, "The Expert", we see how the leader begins the meeting by stating 3 strategic initiatives the project is supposed to support. Then this is forgotten as the team launches into the detail of the project. As the project goals are changed to suit different agendas, no one checks whether the new project goal still supports the original strategic initiatives. As a result, projects often assume a life and purpose of their own – unrelated to the strategy or business of the organization.
Can you clearly answer the question. "What will the end result look like if we are successful?"
If you can't - then you are not ready to delegate responsibility.
5. A lack of vision.
In the video, the expert who is going to do the work on the project, asks a very important question. "What will the end result look like?"
Having a vision of an end result of a project or strategy is the first step a team needs to agree upon, before planning a project or delegating responsibility. The vision provides the focus around which a team can plan a project. It also helps those who are responsible for working on different areas of the project to understand what is expected of them.
A team sets itself up for failure when they can't answer the question “What will the end result look like, if we implement this project successfully?" They often hide the fact that they don't understand the end goal, by focusing on smaller and smaller elements of the project that relate to their own agendas. This lack of focus creates confusion and frustration.
6. Lack of agreement on the success criteria of the project.
In the video, most of the debate was around the color of the lines, and how they should be arranged in relation to one another. Because most of the team hadn’t had experience in similar projects or even a basic knowledge of geometry, and because they didn't value the experience of the expert, they couldn't easily agree on a set of criteria that would be used to judge the success of the project. The criteria they finally agreed upon - red lines, green lines, transparent ink, a kitten and a balloon - did not meet the goal of the project, or the strategic initiatives driving the project.
A lack of clarity about success criteria, makes it difficult for those doing the work on the project, to understand what is expected of them, or to plan what they need to do to be successful.
7. Abdicate accountability to the person with the least power – the person who has to do the job.
The video shows how many leaders like to 'pass the buck'. Those at the top like to be seen as visionaries or 'big picture thinkers.' They delegate responsibility to their middle managers to 'unpack their visions or strategic initiatives' and to 'flesh out the detail'. The middle managers in turn delegate responsibility for implementation down to the next level.
Eventually, those with the least amount of political power are tasked with the responsibility for making the project work. It is these people at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy who are expected to translate strategic initiatives and project goals into reality – often without support from their leaders. Then they are the ones who are blamed when the project goals fail to be achieved
8. Don’t listen to issues raised by those with the responsibility for doing the work.
In the video we see that when the expert at the bottom of the hierarchy tries to voice his concerns, no one listens to him.
There is a culture in many organizations that values positive attitudes to the point where they don't listen to anyone who raises problems. People who suggest something cannot be done are often labeled as ‘negative’ or ‘uncooperative’ - even if they are experts in the field. They are told to ‘find a way to make it work.’ Then even if the way they suggest no longer supports the strategic initiative of the organization, they are told to ‘make it happen.’
9. No one takes responsibility for ensuring the project helps achieve the strategic initiative.
The managers in the video, leave the meeting feeling quite satisfied. The expert leaves feeling disillusioned.
Often a project team believes their job is done, when they have abdicated the job to an employee. They gloss over the fact that the employee doesn’t believe their expectations are realistic, that the job can't be done, and even if it could be done, it wouldn’t support the company’s strategic initiative. The managers feel that as long as they’ve handed the task over, they have done their job. And if it all goes wrong, then they have someone they can blame.
10. What is most funny, is what causes most stress
What we find most funny in the video "The expert", are those dysfunctional leadership behaviors that cause strategic projects to fail. Those employees and experts who are landed with the job of implementing projects within this type of context will face frustration, and stress. Eventually they will adopt the only survival strategy open to them. Apathy.
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