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Why Projects Are Late
By Barry Otterholt

There are as many reasons for projects being late as there are dimensions to the human personality, since the reasons ultimately stem from human perception and the decisions that come from it. That said, I’ve found that there is indeed a single thematic cause for schedule slippage in most projects:

A focus on what’s been done, rather than on what’s left to do.

A common sentiment I hear among project managers is: “We have good people. They’ll get the job done.” This is an early sign that the project manager does not understand his or her own role in the group. The project manager must be the trail-blazer; always looking where they’re going, ensuring the path is clear, judiciously eliminating or circumventing obstructions, ensuring adequate support provisions, and making sure the capabilities of each person are factored in to decisions about how to proceed around the next turn. It is the project manager’s responsibility to lead the way and inform the team about what’s in front of them. But instead, most project managers focus on what’s behind them; how far the team has come, how hard people have worked, and how well they’re working together. This is akin to driving a car with only a rear-view mirror to look through. It will surely cost the team unfortunate consequences.

The best managers I’ve met have an almost insatiable appetite for knowing what’s left and keeping everybody’s focus on it. They balance what needs to be done with what can get done, and make sure stakeholder expectations are aligned. They also tend to measure things, so the surprises are few and of lesser impact. Their status reports generally include updated projections about best-case and worst-case completion dates, and engage sponsors in discussions about what can be done to get the best-case.

One project manager summed it up nicely:

“Keep your eyes on the prize.”

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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