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Success & Failure - project management lessons from great leaders

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Every so often a big, seemingly avoidable project failure hits the news. In the last couple of years we have seen the TSB system replacement go publicly wrong and HS2 is teetering on the brink. Before that, Elon had been in the press over his Tesla Model 3 problems, and the mother of all disasters... NHS IT. This list goes on, but there are many similar failures that don’t hit the news which cost companies dearly. Over the years I have helped recover many failing projects which range from implementation of Information Technology through to new products being late to market. All of these have their own peculiarities, but there are some common themes, both in the cause and the actions to drive the recovery. So I thought I would capture them in the words of some great leaders.

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose”- Benjamin Disraeli

It may sound obvious, but all programmes need to be clear about the end state that they wish to achieve. We all know about SMART objectives, but the concept is easily forgotten. Sometimes objectives are not set. Sometimes they are set and not clearly communicated. Often priorities change due to prevailing conditions and people lose sight of the end game.

Nehru said “Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles”.  

I worked with one company that was thrown off course by a significant safety issue with a new product. In recovery and under pressure, they struggled after that to make the right decisions in the right timescale to bring the project back under control. At a more detailed level, project requirements are often unclear, conflicting or not bought into. Getting clarity of direction is critical to success, but this must be balanced against the need to make progress. The Agile method in software development is a good example of how to get this right – the direction of travel is clear, but the detail requirements are developed in waves when it is appropriate to do so.

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”- Dwight D. Eisenhower

In fairness, I have rarely encountered projects without a plan. More often, the plan is naïve or optimistic. A common theme in projects that go wrong is failing to understand the key assumptions and vulnerabilities in the plans and take account of them: the resources and skills required; the bottlenecks and key constraints; the dependencies; and, basis of estimates amongst many others. In planning it is important to get down to detail and test the assumptions you make to ensure they are valid. If you understand the key parameters and risks, then it is easier to look for the early signs that things are going wrong. I worked with one company that had a deployed a new system which had gone so badly wrong they had stopped shipping products for a significant period – it turned out that this was caused by a number of their key assumptions being wildly wrong. Some simple testing of these would have shown this and given them the chance to re-plan.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy” - Field Marshal Moltke

Ike and Moltke are pretty much coming from the same angle, but I’ve used this quote to focus on Risks and the need to have a live plan. Your plan is only as good as your understanding of the risks to it. As soon as something goes wrong, your plan will be useless, unless you have thought through “what happens if ….?”. Agility, re-planning and planned responses to events are all components of a good programme process. I won’t quote Donald Rumsfeld in full, but there will always be “unknown, unknown’s”. So, we need to make our projects learning and adapt to the conditions to uncover the unknowns as we learn. In many of the failing projects I have been involved with, risk management exists. There are: detailed risk registers; spreadsheets analysing and colour coding; owners assigned; and plans defined. So, where have they gone wrong? Look at the date of the last update. In one technology deployment disaster I was asked to review, the last update to the risk register was nine months previous. Risk management is often seen as a one-time thing – it needs to be an on-going process that has quality resources assigned to it. And importantly, needs to be challenged by those with battle scars. Naïveté is a common theme in the causes of project failure. One of my favourite descriptions of this is “happy path planning” – everything will be fine unless something goes wrong. There is often a bewildering desire of people not to recognise the faults clearly evident in their plan:

Professor Daniel Kahneman – “Confidence has very little to do with the information on which it is based..”

Don't be tempted to remove all the "slack" from your project plan - something will go wrong. Two of the most damaging risks I have encountered are: a failure to understand the true maturity of a technology; and, a failure to understand the impact of learner curve on the plan.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself” – Henry Ford

There are three angles on this that I would like to draw attention to: the plan; the team; and the stakeholders. Despite years of management gurus preaching about integrated teams, multi-disciplinary processes, etcetera, I still find that one of the root causes of project failure is the functional nature of organisations. I was asked to help recover part of a new airliner programme – the client knew it would be late, but not quite how late. One of the key causes of this was that, while all the functions knew what they had to do, their plans were not integrated and therefore it was impossible to understand the true impact of dependencies. There should be one plan which integrates all plans, functional or otherwise, together. Exacerbating this issue is the way teams are organised. I often see the idea of “virtual teams” – in reality what this means is they come together for meetings! One of the regular recovery actions I implement is to pull the teams physically together to work together under a single project manager – creating a truly multidisciplinary team. We must also not forget the importance of wider communication in the business.

The final point can be one of the more intractable issues – stakeholder alignment. With many functions come many senior stakeholders, with their personal measures, departmental priorities and aspirations (not to mention politics). To avoid these issues would be folly – so it is vitally important that the governance of a project has representation from and accountability assigned to the key stakeholders. This builds joint ownership of both the problem and solution.

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”- Winston Churchill

You can’t get through something like this without a couple of quotes from Winston Churchill. A simple example – in many programmes there needs to be a balance struck between competing objectives. In an aerospace context many new products have Weight, Timeline, Functional and Cost objectives. These, if not monitored and people held accountable for them, can go out of control. I worked with one company that was focussed on the appearance and weight of their new product because that was what the customer was interested in. What they failed to do was monitor the costs and the impact of change on the timeline and as a result the product was almost twice as costly as planned and late to market. Measures should be put in place to review achievement across all the important areas of performance for the project.

“It is better to do something than to do nothing while waiting to do everything”- Winston Churchill

I’m not sure I need to say too much about this! Delaying decisions until information is perfect is one of the most significant causes of project failure. One of my clients whose ability to ramp up production to meet the demands of their customer was completely constrained by the availability of a particular type of measuring machine. The wisdom was that we should not order more because if we can improve quality we may not need them. Meanwhile, the customer is becoming increasingly frustrated by missed schedules. A situation that puts me in mind of Joseph Heller’s book Catch 22. Needless to say, the procurement of more machines was very high on the list of recovery actions. When projects are delayed I have observed two main impacts: the projects drift resulting in lost impetus; and, people lose focus on those issues that are both Important & Urgent! In recovery it is therefore important to inject impetus and focus by prioritising action and creating a drumbeat to the project.

My recipe for recovery

Driving programme recovery requires strong leadership and making difficult decisions, but underlying success is getting everybody pointing in the same direction based on a shared understanding of the causes of failure and the objectives in recovery. My recipe for programme recovery consists of the following steps:

  1. Take a step back, understand what needs to be achieved, understand the causes of failure before rushing into action;

  2. Establish a baseline to improve upon – “demonstrated capacity & capability” does not lie as a measure and be really clear what the key milestones are;

  3. Create a focus on the “important & urgent” and drive a daily drumbeat to progress these actions to conclusion;

  4. Understand the key constraints and risks and develop a plan to overcome these and iterate the plan as the unknowns become clear;

  5. Form a multidiscipline team to execute the recovery;

  6. Make sure everyone understands their role and objectives;

  7. Put in place the governance to make the decisions and address the blockages in a timely manner and hold stakeholders to account;

  8. Keep the score – measure to show the results; and,

  9. Be rigorous about managing the risks and be prepared for things to get worse before they get better.

I will leave you with one final quote that I don't think I need to explain:

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things" – Niccolo Machiavelli

Article by John Riley, Partner at Consult Avila. At Consult Avila we are a team of experienced professionals who work closely with our clients to solve complex business problems.  We have a track record of delivering real sustained results at pace in manufacturing companies. Our principal offerings are: Business and Operations strategy - from design to delivery; Business turnaround and programme recovery; End to end supply chain restructuring and cost reduction; and, Integrated business planning and inventory optimisation.

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