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How Can You Tackle the Hidden 50% of Project Success?

The bad news is that around 50% of strategic initiatives fail – that is according to mid-range estimates1. The good news is there is an area of risk that, although typically overlooked, can account for more than 50% of project success. The two can balance each other out, thereby dramatically boosting confidence in project success!

Where Everybody Looks

When reviewing projects or initiatives, the focus immediately goes to the ‘project triangle’ or a derivation of it (as below).  However, neither the Gantt Chart nor the project triangle are enough when reviewing a strategic project.  Yes, you need to know what is done and what is not done, also to review scope, budget and deliverables.  But that is not enough. 

There is a critical oversight in respect of the successful execution of strategic projects and priorities. That is a range of factors that could account for as much as 50% of success, or failure.

What Most People Overlook

You cannot separate the performance of the project from the performance of the team.

Every bit as important as the task list and % completion of the project stage is the effectiveness of the team leading the project as well as those who are doing the work.

However, compared to the time spent on planning strategic projects, little attention is given to the teams that are to run them or the obstacles and barriers they are facing.  This blind-spot is a key reason why so many strategic projects or initiatives struggle.

Performance Design

The performance of a project, or any other team, depends on getting a lot of things right.  Indeed, at least 7 things:

  • Right People
  • In the Right Roles
  • Doing the Right Work
  • Working together in the Right Way
  • With the Right Resources
  • And the Right Rewards
  • To achieve the Right Results.

At first glance this may seem like a straight-forward formula, however, when it comes to teams; ‘getting it right’ isn’t easy. 

High-performing project teams do not naturally occur.  They are not accidental either.  Bringing a group of intelligent and experienced people together does not make for an effective team.  Indeed, far from it.  Indeed, the challenges are often the greatest when individual high performers must collaborate.

In addition to looking for performance gains in the traditional aspects of running a project or initiative, it is important to capitalize on opportunities relating to the set-up and structure of their project and project team(s).

The New Reality of Performance

Most project teams are not designed to deliver sustained performance and innovation.  Quite simply, they don’t have the right people in the right roles doing the right work and if they do, they may not be working together in the right way, with the right resources, or towards the right results. 

Many project and project teams evolve with little thought and planning.  Managers carefully hire or select people (often at considerable cost) to join a team.  Chosen, based on their past achievements as individuals, they are put working with other similarly talented people. What happens next?  Well, in most cases that is left to chance! 

The expectation is that if the ‘right people’ are selected they will naturally perform as a team.  More often than not, the result is disappointment for all involved. Attention immediately turns to the interpersonal relations or cultural dynamics, but the root cause (i.e. poor design) is typically overlooked.

No mater how exciting the project, there is more to performance than simply bringing a group of capable individuals together and calling them a team.  Even if you get the right people on the team, that is only one of a total of seven considerations in designing for team performance.  Those people must be in the right roles, doing the right work and working towards the achievement of the right results.  That is what designing to deliver high performance is all about.

Performance Dynamics

When projects are being discussed there is another vital aspect missing.  That is the issue of ‘performance dynamics’ and the extent to which the patterns of interaction among those working on the project support not just the task effectiveness or decisions smarts of the team, but its social health too. For example, are people working together in a way that brings out the best in each other? 

Typically, the cultural norms within a team often go unquestioned.  Nobody stops to ask if they are productive or healthy.  For example, is there be too much or too little urgency?  Is there enough cohesion among team members? How effective is communication withing the team?

The norms of behavior within the group directly impact on its performance.  For example, if there is a deficit of trust and respect, the resulting lack of psychological safety is likely to stifle innovation and make people reluctant to say what they are really thinking.  The result is that many of the surprise setbacks that befall a project could have been tackled before they became a problem – if only someone had spoken-up.

Project Reflectivity

A project review is a great opportunity to check that the right people are in the right roles, doing the right work and working in the right way.  Also, that people are focused on the right results and have the right resources as well as the right rewards. This is what we call ‘performance design’ or ensuring that the team is set up for success, yet it is absent from most conversations about the performance and potential of critical projects.  It is a key source of performance loss or risk for critical projects.

Project reviews are an ideal opportunity for team reflexivity – that is for the team to stand back and review how people are working together, any barriers to effective collaboration, what team members need from each other and so on. 

Next time you review your key projects and priorities, don’t just do it the same way as every other quarter.  Instead, use the process of reviewing and optimizing key projects/priorities to test and develop your team.  

Review your projects in a way that generates more energy and engagement.  Expand the scope to include how your team works together.  That way you won’t just have a great pitstop, but will be developing a great pit team too.

Every bit as important as the task list and % completion of the project stage is the effectiveness of the team doing the work.

  1. Estimates of the failure rate of strategy and strategic initiatives ranges from 30% to 90%, so 50% is middle of the range estimate. See: Cândido, C.J.F. and S.P. Santos (2015) Strategy implementation: What is the failure rate? Journal of Management & Organization, 21(2), 237-262. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/jmo.2014.77 []

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