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Why Projects Fail – Part II
By Steve Beshuk

This is the second and final installment of Why Projects Fail. So far, we’ve covered two important points. First, sometimes projects fail simply because they are hard and people underestimate them. You need to assume a level of difficulty when entering a project that affects an entire organization. Second: plan. Many projects fail because the organization didn’t invest in a plan that was thorough and realistic. Optimism is great, but don’t let it get in the way of making realistic decisions. The remaining reasons that projects fail include:

Project failure is expected

It’s pretty well accepted that most projects fail. You can find studies that estimate 30% to 80% of projects fail. Isn’t that incredible? Is that okay? Would you be okay if your organization failed at fulfilling its mission 80% of the time? Let’s face it, this project is part of your mission. Geneca, a software consulting firm, surveyed 600 business and IT executives as part of a study of why project teams struggle. You can guess the outcome based on the name of the report: “Doomed from the start.” Geneca’s finding was that “75% of respondents admit that their projects are either always or usually doomed right from the start.”

It’s no wonder projects fail so often; people expect them too! Imagine the success of a football team whose coach assumed it would lose 75% of its games. Project failure cannot be an option. That doesn’t ensure it won’t fail – some things are beyond our control – but the attitude of the project sponsor, the project manager and the project team should be that failure is not an option.

The organization looks at it like an IT project

We like to say at my company, “there is no such thing as an IT project.” If it is not serving a business need, then why are you doing it? I have seen this scenario many times: “We need a new CRM system. That’s technology, so we will make Joe, head of IT, the lead on the project. He will work with the vendor to implement it. Let us know when it’s live.” Let me be clear, IT is a key resource on the project, you cannot succeed without them, but this is a business project that must be driven by the business.

You have the wrong Project Manager

The PM is not an administrator, she or he is a leader. S/he needs to know the discipline and tools of project management and she needs to know the business. I am a certified PM and I’ve been doing this work for nonprofits for close to two decades. I am really good at it. You should hire me to implement you CRM software. But you should not hire me to PM building your house. The PM is not there just to ensure that the budget is maintained and the schedule is up to date (although, those are vital). S/he must internalize the business objectives of the project, s/he must understand best practices in the nonprofit industry, and s/he must know how the new system works. The Project Manager is accountable for the success of the project. To own that accountability, the PM has to understand all aspects of the project. If you are getting a PM from the corporate PMO and that person is not familiar with the difference between a soft-credit and a split gift, they need to learn it fast or you need to get a new PM. You have to have the right person. If you don’t – and you will know if you don’t – then you need to address it.

The tools stink

Project management, especially for larger projects, requires tracking a lot of data. There are deliverables, tasks, durations, work, predecessors, start dates, end dates, constraints, resources, costs, critical path, the list goes on. One of the first places people go is Microsoft Project. I’ve not met one person who likes MS Project. I know some people who simply refuse to use it. I’ve met several people who understand it and understand its value, but no one will argue that is it easy to learn. In MS Project’s defense, it’s actually pretty decent. The problem is, to make it work well, you need expertise that most people do not have. It’s like learning to play the guitar. You learn the D, C and G chords and you are able to play a lot of music. You think, “playing the guitar isn’t so tough.” Then it’s time to play a bar with an F chord and you become convinced that hands do not work that way (at least I was). MS Project is like that. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You have to invest the time to understand how and why the tool works the way it does, or you need to hire someone who does.

The upside is that the market is growing for project management tools that are more than Excel and less than MS Project. We don’t vouch for any particular product, but a search on the web will turn up some promising candidates. For the record, I would like to state: Excel is not a project management tool. Please repeat that. Excel is not a project management tool.

Steven Beshuk, PMP is the Director of Consulting Services at JCA Inc.. A recognized expert in operations efficiency, donor system selection, and large system implementations, he has assisted many JCA clients with myriad projects. His clients have included ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, University of Oregon, Children’s Cancer Research Fund and many more. His extensive nonprofit experience gives him comprehensive knowledge of the end-user’s needs.

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