VOICES In the Trenches
The five taboo topics that can doom projects.
By David Maxfield
PROJECT MANAGEMENT REQUIRES FRANK,
honest and respectful dialogue. But what if the
problems you see with a plan, a sponsor or a team
member feel too taboo to mention?
In these cases, information-based processes and
tools are of little help. Solving “undiscussables”
requires deeper changes to cultural practices,
social norms and personal skills.
The corporate training firm VitalSmarts investigated more than 2,200 projects, looking for undiscussables, categorizing them and measuring their
impact. We discovered that the vast majority of
project failures involve five undiscussables.
1. Fact-free planning. About 85 percent of
project participants in the survey reported project
deadlines, budgets or resources being set without
consideration for reality. Fewer than one in seven
practitioners were able to successfully confront
the problem. When this crucial conversation fails,
there is an 82 percent chance the project will come
in over budget, late or short on quality.
2. Absent sponsors. The study found 65 percent of project managers experience sponsors
who don’t provide adequate leadership, political
clout, time or energy. Furthermore, 88 percent of
practitioners describe confronting this situation as
between “difficult” and “impossible.” Fewer than
one in five are able to hold the crucial conversation
in a way that solves the problem. When the project
leader fails to solve this problem, more than three-quarters of projects come in substantially over
budget, behind schedule and below specifications.
3. Lack of planning. The study
found 83 percent of project leaders
routinely contend with stakeholders
who skirt the formal project planning
process. This leads to scope creep,
a problem that only 13 percent of
respondents are able to resolve. As
a result, 80 percent of these projects
fail to achieve their deliverables.
4. Inaccurate status reports. Projects derail when team members fail to
honestly report their status. More than
half of project managers say they regularly
face some form of this, and fewer than one in
four are able to resolve it. When status reports
are not reported honestly, 74 percent of these
projects fall short of requirements.
5. Team failures. Eighty percent of project
leaders report being hobbled by team members
who don’t attend meetings, fail to meet schedules or lack the competence to meet ambitious
goals. Often these leaders have little say in selecting or replacing these non-performers
and feel powerless to coach them.
Instead, they ignore their
deficiencies and work
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