A project can be anything that requires multiple steps to complete. It’s a managed process that takes you from ‘A’ to ‘B’ and if ‘B’ is a better place than ‘A’ then the project has probably been a success. Sometimes a project can be accomplished with a simple task list and a single person. Sometimes it needs multiple teams in multiple locations collaborating in a variety of ways to realise something quite complex. On other occasions, several projects must to be orchestrated in such a way that they converge to deliver a shared program goal.

The more complicated your situation, the more important it will be to avoid the project killers that I will identify below. Regardless of the context of your particular project(s), these things can almost certainly send it off the rails or, at the very least, make life pretty uncomfortable.

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Below, I have listed eight important things to avoid in your projects. The list is not meant to be exhaustive but certainly reflects those items that should be top of mind if you want to ensure success.

No Compelling ‘Why’ – if the driving rationale for the project is not understood and well communicated it will be difficult to maintain team cohesion. If key stakeholders (and that includes your teams!) have not bought into the relevance of the project you will not get their full attention and commitment – generally, people don’t like to waste their time and will seek out something more meaningful given half a chance.

Lack of Clarity – if you don’t know what success looks like then it will be very hard to get there. Moreover, if there is not a very clear understanding of what is included and what is excluded from the project scope then there are likely to be some unpleasant surprises down the track. As a third point, it is important to establish accountability from the start – you need to be clear on who is accountable for getting things done wherever they are in the organization and supporting ecosystem. As a word of caution, do not confuse ‘responsible’ with ‘accountable’.

Unrealistic Expectations – if expectations are not properly managed then key stakeholders are likely to disengage or may even become hostile. It is rarely possible to have everything you want – compromises have to be made and, when they are, it is essential that your stakeholders are part of the discussion. As the old saying goes “cost, quality, schedule – pick any two”. Luxury is expensive. Rubbish can be produced quickly. Make sure everyone understands what is good enough. Moreover, a plan is not a promise; it is a map, a best estimate given what is known at the time. It will not survive unmodified and this needs to be understood (and agreed) by all.

Ineffective Sponsor – in order for a project to succeed it needs to have a powerful and committed sponsor who shares accountability for its success. It is important that someone (with significant authority) will step in to arbitrate over competing priorities and ensure that adequate resources are consistently made available. The sponsor must stay actively engaged to promote the continued value of the initiative and help remove major obstacles. In order to be effective, the sponsor needs to build and maintain a sponsorship coalition among the top levels of the accountable and supporting groups.

Inadequate Risk Management – failure to properly anticipate and respond to both risks and opportunities can lead to delays, overspend or worse. It is important to stay on top of as this. Things change. Opportunities come and go, priorities get modified, you will learn things and you will have to adapt. The key here is to do it and do it continuously. Your focus should be out on the risk horizon while your teams concentrate on the here and now. Along with key stakeholders, you need to be anticipating what might be coming down the track and what you might be able to do about it.

No Change Control – Failure to control the scope of the project together with the associated success criteria is simply asking for trouble. Change is certainly not a bad thing but it must be controlled. It is good practice that a learning and adaptive environment should prevail but this does not mean accepting change without assessing the impact and making trade-offs. Make sure there is a process for submission, review, approval and implementation.

Wrong Metrics | Poor Control – delivery is about ‘yes’ or ‘no’. 95% complete is seldom useful; especially if it stays that way for weeks or even months. If something has value in some interim state then that state should be defined as an intermediate deliverable. On the whole, deliverables should be designed to have clear, unambiguous outcomes that are either done or not. When they are not done, the trajectory needs to be understood and assessed. Importantly, all promised changes in performance should be reviewed against past trends and any significant change in anticipated trajectory needs to be supported by an accompanying change in strategy.

Poor Communication – effective communication is paramount. You need to communicate goals. You need to communication rationale. You need to listen to your teams and other stakeholders. Teams need to be able to collaborate and share ideas freely. Stakeholders need to be able to access relevant (and correct) information easily. Failure to communicate properly will keep you mired in the minutiae. Moreover, great communication is the backbone to effective delegation and doing that right will free you up to focus on the bigger picture, get out of your teams’ way and concentrate on removing those blocks.

In essence it really isn’t rocket science. The trick is to take away these ideas and do something to make sure your project(s) avoid these traps.


“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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AuthorTrevor Lindars