Projects Fail at the Beginning

Posted by bob on August 14, 2017

A wise Project Manager once said to me, “You know that projects fail at the beginning.”

I protested, “No, that cannot be right. You don’t know that a project has failed until you get to the end of the project. You have to go through all of the steps to find out if you have done the right or wrong things.”

He smiled, and then carefully improved my understanding.

At the beginning of a project, the team leaders will estimate the manpower (people), the schedule (time), the expenses (money), and how close you can come to the expected outcome (results). There usually ensue several rounds of negotiation: management or sales will often complain that the project leaders are padding their estimates.

“See,” they say, “You did this other project with half that number of people and in much less time than you are projecting.” When the team leaders explain that the other project was one-fourth as complex, and only required communication between fewer people, a typical response might be, “Well, you will just need to work harder and faster this time. Our customer insists that we meet all of his requirements for Schedule, Cost, and Quality.”

At this point, the project can go one of two ways: it can succeed—at the beginning. If sales and management trust their engineering teams, they will go back to the customer and state the obvious: “We cannot do that, but we can achieve this.” A wise customer will listen to their explanations and offer compromises to achieve their highest priority goals. They can dive into the schedule or cost or quality assumptions to find any misunderstanding.

They might figure out how to reasonably challenge the vendor to do a little better (offer a bonus for early delivery, or penalties for poor quality) but they will not try to destroy the vendor’s best and final proposal. After all, they came to that vendor because they believed that vendor could solve their problems—why should they attempt to undermine the experts on whom they will depend for success?

The customer ultimately wants his project (product) to succeed. It is short-sighted and downright foolish to ignore the expert you are about to hire. Unfortunately, many managers consider this self-destructive behavior part of normal, rough-and-tumble business.

When these relationships go bad, the project fails—at the beginning. Schedules become shortened too far and unexpected problems will then derail the whole development plan. Costs swell up and suddenly the development team is pressured to sacrifice product quality in order to maintain profit margins. Your best experts realize that you have stopped listening to them and walk away to work for your competitor.

The more I listened, the more I realized that this wise Project Manager was right. Projects fail at the beginning. The decisions made at the beginning enable (but do not guarantee) success. Conversely, decisions at the beginning can easily assure the failure of the team. Sadly, we cannot demonstrate the outcome until we have gone through the entire process, even if we know that management supported or betrayed their project team from the beginning.