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How project failures can bring about growth

The saying goes that you learn far more from your failures than you do your successes. This is almost certainly true in project management roles. Here we take a look at what we can learn from project downfalls, and how best to take these lessons and grow.

Moving forward and learning lessons from project failures depends greatly upon establishing what the issue was. So, take the time to reflect, assess and pinpoint the project’s downfalls, and you’ll be in the best position to make changes to strategy.

Failure due to time management

The issue: Various studies have found that anywhere from 60 to a whopping 90 percent of projects overrun. Time management plays a key role in the project profession, but even with best efforts, very few projects come in on time. Late delivery can be costly in terms of staffing, resources and reputation. Even the most savvy project leader will find there is always room for improvement.

The lesson: Learn to say no! Unnecessary meetings swallow up time that could be spent actually doing the work. So save yourself and your team time by saying “no” to them! Adopting scrum practices such as rapid morning ‘stand-ups’ instead could keep you on track and replace otherwise lengthy meetings.

Whilst you’re at it, say “no” to obsessing over perfection too. There will be times when finessing every minute detail is necessary, but in general it’s not. Getting work done to a good standard and moving on will keep the project rolling and prevent delays.

Project over budget?

The issue: Projects often go over budget. We’ve established the majority of projects overrun, and many will come in late and over budget! But it doesn’t have to be this way. By taking some time to pinpoint where your past projects have blown the bank you can look to address the issues. This could be due to problems at the planning stage – the wrong team member projecting costs, the project being underestimated either in terms of time or money; or even the project being underfinanced from the get-go.

The lesson: As previously mentioned, bringing your project in on schedule will help it to come in on budget, as extending a project instantly means more money for staff and resources. Accurate estimates at the planning stage will help solve this issue. Likewise, ensuring the right team member is involved at the planning stage will go a long way to avoiding budget issues. Cost planning is a vital project process so it must be done by an experienced individual. Detailed cost breakdowns are essential, as are quotes for any external resource. These should always be received in writing so that you are not met with any nasty surprises further down the line.

Even with the best planning, projects are so often underfinanced. Be sure that you are not promising your clients, stakeholders or sponsors the moon on a stick. If they ‘want it all’, whatever that may mean for your project, then it is going to cost them. Providing a detailed scope with costings will show where additional funding will be required in order to reach a desired standard. Which brings us nicely onto scope creep...

The issue of scope creep

The issue: Where do we begin?! The issue with scope creep is that it throws a spanner in the works of even the most perfectly functioning project machine! Unexpected changes to scope or additional features mean additional costs and time, making you miss deadlines, go over budget and ultimately result in project failure. Scope creep isn't always the client’s doing either. It can come from poor planning, a lack of risk assessment and even external factors out of your control.

The lesson: It is possible to mitigate scope creep with smarter planning. Prevention is key with scope creep, so be sure that you are thorough in initial planning, ask questions of the brief and avoid assumptions. Leave a contingency for both time and budget where possible and use resources cleverly.

Another approach is to allow and make room for a level of scope creep – hear us out! By adopting more agile practices, you create an environment where change is expected. Within agile working, teams are prepared for change, able to adapt, and space for flexibility is allowed. Afterall, change can be a good thing.

Finally, all too often additional work will encroach upon the scope because you and your team say yes to it. Know when to pull back and put add-ons off until a later phase. You are not saying no, you’re simply saying “not now” in order to keep focus. Afterall, if a project isn't completed on time or on budget, shareholders and clients may well class it as a failure, regardless of whether you have gone above and beyond what you originally set out to do. Leaving add-ons to a later phase will potentially gain you future work and extend your relationship with the client.