How To Move Beyond The Blame Game And Uncover Why Projects Fail

During the recession, most businesses operated under the assumption that in order to save money, they would have to do more work with fewer employees. As a general rule, this was true. Workplace productivity jumped throughout the downturn.

But at the project level, the theory fell down. Under-staffed projects invariably stumbled, incurring costly delays or even failing completely--quickly erasing any labor cost-savings.

Managers found out that the “less is more” attitude often doomed projects from the start. In actuality, the more cost-effective move would have been to allocate enough resources before the work got underway.

Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But how do you figure out why a project ran aground and what the problems’ root causes were? How do you examine a modern corporation, an incredibly complex system, and diagnose where the seeds of failure were sown?

System dynamics, a modeling technique out of MIT, attempts to do just that. It offers a holistic approach to understanding the behaviors of complex systems over time, through diagnosis of causal relationships. Applicable across all industries, systems thinking can be particularly useful at the project level--helping managers hone in on internal feedback loops and potential time delays that may impact a project’s outcome.

At the most basic level, systems thinking seeks to correct a natural, but dangerous human tendency: the fundamental attribution error. It has always been easier to target a person as the reason why a project failed, but if the underlying system isn’t designed for success, it won’t matter who’s sitting in the manager’s chair. Systems thinking moves beyond the blame game to find out what really happened.

This school of thought applies to management a fairly recent observation in the sciences: Linear relationships in nature, including human nature, are exceedingly rare. Different from just analyzing outputs, systems thinking seeks an orderly way for managers to analyze all aspects of organizational dynamics that can affect a project team’s ability to be successful.

By properly identifying these variables and studying the interactions between them within an organizational system, managers can figure out the positive and negative consequences that result from mixing certain components.

When systems thinking experts enter a project that’s listing heavily, they immediately set up a structure to accurately diagnose problems. They typically look at a large number of variables, but there are a few issues that they encounter more frequently than others.

  1. Late to the Game: “Less is more” has come to mean doing more work with fewer people--or, simply put--working harder. But attempts to staff projects with fewer people will invariably backfire, as fatigue and stress take their toll on your employees. And, throwing more people at the problem when you’re late to the game will only make matters worse, as it disrupts the productivity of the project team. In order to set up the system for success, managers should create brutally honest resource plans during the project-planning phase, and gather enough sponsorship among upper level management (those who control and supply resources) in order to ensure that the project remains a high priority.
  2. Competing work priorities and conflicting directives: Take a look at the org chart. If every manager above the employee isn’t informed of the project, its importance and its timeline, the work will fall to the wayside. Looking at a map of a botched project, you’d be surprised how often failure to secure buy-in from all affected managers was the cause of a poor outcome. The trickle-down effect is very real: if a team member’s supervisors (even those outside of the project) don’t support the work, they will direct their staff away from executing it and prioritize work that fits their own individual incentives. As few companies are able to dedicate full-time resources to a project, employees recruited to work on specific projects often find themselves embroiled in a battle between their day-to-day responsibilities and new, extra duties. Avoid intra-office contradiction by collecting all necessary “signatures” first, and ensuring that incentives exist for all managers in the organization to support the work.
  3. Checks and balances: The problem with diagnosing a systemic problem from within is that there’s typically a sizeable delay between cause and effect. This is particularly true of long-term projects. Flaws that occur early are often identified too late, well after there’s a relatively easy fix. At the onset of any major assignment, set up a completely separate quality assurance function. Also, provide incentives for project team members to identify problems, not hide them. For a more formalized process, you can pass work through an objective QA employee or department for review. Having a separate quality assurance team can increase the likelihood of detecting issues early, and act as an insurance policy against costly overruns.
  4. Need for feedback: Humans need feedback and a sense of purpose in order to remain motivated. However, in large, enterprise systems projects with lengthy timelines, it’s often hard to see immediate progress, and the very act of learning how to use a new IT system can be a very frustrating experience--especially if training is an after-thought. Missing this piece can have devastating effects on the morale of your project team. For this reason, it’s very important that all members of a project team understand the importance of what they’re doing, and that managers provide a constant stream of support and feedback to their employees. A well designed communications and training plan is the hallmark of any key change initiative, and will increase your chances of success by many orders of magnitude.

Figuring out where a project went wrong hinges on your understanding of the underlying dynamics; the beauty of systems thinking is that it allows you to examine beyond surface causes and dive straight to the root of the problems. Intuition alone won’t deliver you to those conclusions. By systematically outlining the various potential feedback loops of your working system, this approach yields invaluable counter intuition that can salvage your current project, or guarantee that your next one will be a success.

Liz Larsen is director of consulting services at Navint Partners, where she oversees the delivery of services relating to large-scale business change. She has an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, where she was a member of its inaugural Executive MBA class.

[Image: Flickr user RawheaD Rex]

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