Projects Fail because of Ineffective Behaviors

In this post, we’ll talk about behaviors that better facilitate project success. As with structure, I look at behavior at three levels: Organizational, Team and Personal.

Organizational Behavior: “Here it comes, another ill-conceived program.” Many communications coming from the leadership team leave employees wondering about priorities, impacts, and expected outcomes. When an organization effectively manages change, the leadership team agrees on the intent of strategy execution, successfully engages employees to adapt to the change and implement decisions, and willingly reaches throughout the organization to help employees handle the implementation.

Team Behavior: Without healthy team behaviors, team members end up pointing fingers at one another, and devolve into counterproductive, time wasting rituals. Effective teams work together quickly to achieve goals. This requires healthy conflict to engage and discuss difficult topics, commitment to the team’s purpose, and a willingness to hold one another accountable for outcomes.

Personal Behavior: We’ve all seen cartoons depicting the disheveled executive. When you look beneath the appearance, you see an ineffective, guarded individual who doesn’t deliver. Conversely, effective executives are open, vulnerable, accept risk, and speak with honest candor with others.

Here are five characteristics of an organization that effectively manages change. How does your organization stack up?

  1. The leadership team agrees on the outcomes of decisions.
  2. Priorities are clear to the organization.
  3. The organizational impacts of decisions are understood by those impacted.
  4. Front line employees are involved in implementing the decision.
  5. Leaders coach employees through the implementation of the decision.

Looking at every project through this six-pronged lens of change management is key to your success. Thinking about both project structures and behaviors at each of the three levels, organizational, team and individual ensures that you are comprehensively considering every element of your project teams’ make-up to ensure success.

In future blog posts, I will share examples of good and not-so-good projects considering these factors.


Change Agents Make the Difference

I have found that these eight actions drive successful change:

  1. Ask good questions (ask don’t tell).
  2. Know the business enough to ask good questions.
  3. Focus on the vision. Talk more about how things will be different.
  4. Know the people. Spend time with them. They are the ones who will make it stick.
  5. Put your best people on the change project.
  6. Be open and honest about the change, even the least desirable impacts.
  7. Critically think about risks and issues related to the change.
  8. Perform both quantitative (surveys, focus groups) as well as qualitative (“man-on-the-street”) analysis.


Projects Fail Because the Structure is Wrong

In a recent blog I introduced evidence provided by two well-known organizations that described why projects fail. In summary, the evidence shows that executives take several actions to improve project management, metrics, scheduling and more, but that these adjustments are not effective. Gallup suggests that the real difference happens when executives focus more effort on stakeholder management – or, as I like to call it – Change Management.

Change Management has two primary focuses, behavioral and structure. Today we’ll look at change programs that implement appropriate structures that help facilitate success. We’ll examine organizational, team and personal structures.

Organizational Structure: Large-scale change typically requires a form of matrix structure in the organization to drive the change project while maintaining business operations. This often creates ambiguity about who is ultimately accountable, and highlights when interactions and handoffs are not clear between teams. Leaders must define a solid organizational structure and define functions with the right hand offs between them. Even with no project underway, an organization won’t operate effectively if these basics are not covered.

Team Structure: When teams aren’t structured properly, members are confused about the overall purpose of the team, the responsibilities of their peers, and why and how meetings are held. Effective team structure includes strong leadership with sufficient functional experience, having the right people in the right roles, and driving the right meeting agenda to ensure that relevant topics are discussed.

Personal Structure: We all know that executive who shows up late and disrupts every meeting, and cannot be counted upon to follow through with their commitments. At a personal level, structure means individuals have the self-discipline to manage daily routines, their personal goals are aligned with the team and organizational goals, and they take time regularly to reflect to ensure on-going alignment and a willingness to adjust as required.

Here’s a quick check-list for you to assess your project’s structure:

  1. Organization:
    1. Each function’s role and how it supports the overall organization is clear.
    2. There are clear hand-offs between functions.
  2. Team:
    1. The team is structured properly to achieve its goals (adequate resources in the right areas).
    2. Team meetings are focused on topics relevant to its goals.
  3. Personal:
    1. Team member’s goals are aligned with the goals of the project.
    2. Team members can effectively deal with ambiguity while maintaining focus on execution.

In another blog we’ll examine behavioral characteristics required for successful change. Then in upcoming blogs, we’ll drill down even deeper in each of these components to share examples – both good and not so good – of projects where structural and behavioral characteristics were present (or not present). Stay tuned!


Honey, Syrup, Change and Delegation

A few weeks ago, my wife and I found a new place from which we can source our honey habit (I can extoll the virtues of honey another time). We met Jack, the beekeeper in his driveway, where he readily loaded our pre-arranged order into our car. He then went on to tell me that he has several thousand beehives and taps 6500 maple trees for syrup. He shared with me that he still works a “regular” job in which he put 350 hours last month. I asked him, “When do you sleep?” His response, “Between 8am and 10am, sometimes 10:30am if my wife lets me sleep in.”

People like Jack amaze me because of their capacity for work, ability to operate with little sleep, and still accomplish amazing feats. And yet they don’t delegate. At least Jack doesn’t. He’s quite proud of that fact, as well. No hired help.

Then I started asking myself, what is this guy all about? How would he fair as a change agent responsible for driving change in an organization?

There are executives like Jack in corporate America. While the C suite likes people like this for their boundless capacity for work, they are poor change agents. They typically don’t trust their employees, and don’t delegate well if at all. Here are three simple, evidence-based questions you can ask yourself to determine if you have a “Jack” on your team:

  1. Do they avoid talking about the accomplishments of their people?
  2. Do they work long hours – normally evidenced by late night emails?
  3. Is their vacation balance at or over the limit?

You may want to ask a few more questions to drive to the root of the issue, but positive responses to these three questions will indicate you have a potential issue – particularly if you are trying to drive change.

What can you do about this? Here are four ideas you can use:

  1. Hold him accountable to develop his people. Coach him to select one of his best people as a possible successor (but don’t scare him into thinking you are going to replace him).
  2. Have her report weekly on the accomplishments of her team – by each individual employee.
  3. Coach him to understand the drivers behind this behavior and then mutually agree on developmental actions to improve his leadership performance.
  4. Delegate the leadership of a change that will impact her unit, and hold her accountable for engaging her employees to implement the change.

And speaking of change… Bees change nectar into honey. The boiling process changes maple sap into maple syrup. Now I’m off to have a cup of herbal tea with some fresh-from-the-hive Michigan honey – which will help me change to relaxation mode for this fine Labor Day.


Why do Projects Fail?

Executives say that their projects fail. They fail to meet objectives. They fail to meet timelines. They fail to meet budget constraints. But mostly, they say that projects fail to have a lasting impact on the organization. One of my clients said, “It’s like a bad meal at a restaurant a friend recommended. There’s lots of anticipation about trying something new, but when the meal is over, you wonder why you wasted your time.” Really? We feel like completing projects is wasting time?

The PMI conducted a study of project success that shows that less than two-thirds of projects meet their goals and business intent (success rates have been falling since 2008), and about 17 percent fail outright. Failed projects waste an organization’s money: for every US$1 billion spent on a failed project, US$135 million is lost forever… unrecoverable. And, the numbers haven’t changed that much in 15 years. Why?

The Gallup organization also conducted a study of project failure and found that controlling traditional elements of a project (quality control, scheduling, and budgeting) does not prevent project delays or failure. Project failure is attributed to one or more of the following causes:

  • Project management techniques
  • Project leadership
  • Scope management
  • Stakeholder management, or change management – including communication, employee involvement, executive buy-in, goal clarity

The Gallup study goes on to say that typical project management techniques such as quality control, budgeting, scheduling, and critical path analysis can solve the first three problems. These tools are less impressive for solving the last problem, primarily because they are less effective at managing the human, emotional, and social factors at play with individual stakeholders. Effective stakeholder change management is required to address these factors.

What is stakeholder change management? Let’s face it, the term “change management” is vague and can have many meanings. In this context, it means that for organizations to be successful with change two things must be in place: Appropriate behaviors and appropriate structure.

Generally, I think Change Management receives bad press because many executives think of it as the “soft, squishy stuff,” and don’t make time for it. It’s all about positioning and making it real and tangible. My formula focuses on both structure and behavior. You must have the right teams in place with the right accountabilities. You must have proper sponsorship aligned to the project. You must have people on the team who have been given the change project as a priority. These are all structural elements.

What about behaviors? There must be an inspiring vision to the change. There must be a message that resonates with the folks – one that catches their attention and helps them become more engaged. There must be trust on the project team with minimal in-fighting and political positioning, with the team focused on results. There must be personal accountability and commitment. These are just a few of the behavioral ingredients to a successful change project.

Ask yourself: does your project have these characteristics? Stay tuned to future blog posts to hear more detail about how I address both structure and behavior in a change project. In the mean time, drop me a note. I’d love to hear what you think of today’s blog post.

The role of Executive Sponsors


A systems implementation requiring business process changes is a major initiative, demanding committed sponsorship by company executives. For this purpose, a Steering Committee of executive leaders is usually formed. Their sponsorship must be an active role with a high priority on each week’s calendar for sponsorship activities and events. Here are the reasons for such an imperative:

  • This is an initiative to integrate core business processes, using a system of integrated software and not an IT initiative which is peripheral to the business. The implementation will disrupt the core business processes that produce revenue for the company in some way.
  • The outcomes of these projects are usually very visible to customers, suppliers, the investment community and the board of directors.
  • The monetary costs of the implementation are substantial, and will increase quickly with any scope creep or schedule slippage.
  • The total costs of the project are more than the monetary costs- in terms of employee workload, management attention and opportunity costs- and they also increase quickly with scope creep or schedule slippage.
  • The disruption, high workload and management attention diverted from the core business may only be minimized by a sense of urgency to speed the change throughout the organization. Only consistent and repeated messages and actions from executives can instill that urgency.
  • Committed and active executive leadership has been the major difference between the few organizations that have met their business goals for such projects, and the many that have abandoned their projects completely or reduced their goals and expectations for improvement.

Executive Sponsors’ Responsibilities for the Project:

  1. Clearly articulated project goals and direction that align with and support the business objectives of the enterprise.
  2. Repeated articulation of the business case that communicates the calculated benefit of achieving the project objectives to the enterprise in order to position the project and initiate support from key members of the organization.
  3. Selection of a qualified Project Leader to ensure day-to-day monitoring and control of all activities related to the systems implementation.
  4. Collaboration with the Project Leader in the completion of the Project Team’s Charter so the scope and the boundaries of the team’s authority and responsibility will be known to them, communicated to others, and supported by all.
  5. Approval of a Project Plan that is comprehensive, integrated, and that defines the necessary actions to support the overall success of the project.
  6. Support for a Project Budget that provides the Implementation Team with the resources required by the project.
  7. Presentation on project goals and direction, as well as the Project Plan and Budget, to the Board of Directors to ensure the Board’s commitment and support of the project.
  8. Presentations with the Project Leader on project status to different elements of the organization to increase their members’ understanding of current status, achievements, existing barriers, and to facilitate their support on resourcing, deadlines, and involvement.
  9. Recommendations for changes to the Project Plan that are communicated to the Project Team and submitted in a way that provides timely support for decisions by the Steering Committee.
  10. Advice to the Project Team on proposed business initiatives that may affect the project and require a change in implementation plans, or will require coordination of proposed initiatives with the Project Plan, so that the project will remain supported, with barriers removed.
  11. Resolution of issues raised throughout the project in a way that is timely, and clearly communicated to project teams, Functional Managers, and Senior Management.
  12. Visible commitment and regular communication to the organization as a sponsor of the project.
  13. Removal of obstacles which impede the project so that the project and the project goals are communicated and supported company-wide.

To gain the most value from your project, take steps to ensure your sponsors are filling the role you required. Contact us today to discuss how we can help you achieve success.