It's true that every project is unique. However, it's also true that all project failures can be assessed using the same generalities. It helps to understand these because you can then be proactive in avoiding the problems to begin with.
Poor up-front planning
This is probably the most common problem. If you have ever been on a troubled project, chances are you looked back and said "We should have spent more time planning." Projects that start execution without fully understanding the work to be done (and getting the sponsor to agree) are usually destined for problems. By the time you realize that you are not in synch with your sponsor, it's usually very difficult to get back on track within the allocated budget and timeframe.
Incomplete or vague project workplan
Your work plan (schedule) is the roadmap that describes how you are going to complete the work. You'll have problems if your work plan is at too high a level, incomplete or not up-to-date. You may get away with it on a small project, but it will be fatal on a larger effort.
Weak ongoing project management discipline
Some project managers do a great job in the upfront planning process, but then don't manage the project effectively from that point on. This includes having problems managing scope change, resolving issues, communicating proactively and managing project risks.
This covers a lot of areas. You may not have the right level of resources because you didn't estimate the work correctly. You might have estimated the work correctly, but your management has not allocated the proper level of staffing. It's possible that you have enough bodies, but you don't have people with the right skill mix. All of these may lead to major project failures.
In my experience, people tend to get along fine when the project is on track. However, if the project gets into trouble, people start to work longer hours, feel more stress, get more edgy and have more personality conflicts. While it is certainly possible that these problems are actually causing the project to slip, it is also likely that other problems are causing the problem and that the people problems are a later symptom.
There are many opportunities for project problems throughout the lifecycle. Many of these will cascade as the project progresses, leading to major trouble. Examples of lifecycle problems include:
- A failure to clearly and completely define the requirements, resulting in building the wrong features or leaving gaps in the features needed.
- New or state of the art technology may cause unanticipated problems.
- A poor technical design is not allowing the solution to be easily modified or is not scalable.
- Requirements are not frozen late in the project and continued change requests start to cause the project to drift.
- Technology components do not fit together as designed.
- Poor initial testing techniques cause repeated errors and rework in later tests.
All of these problems will cause projects to struggle. If problems occur toward the end of the project, you may have no choice but to do whatever is required to push the project to completion. The problems that appear earlier will cause the most trouble over time and are more likely to be the ones that require a full project rescue.
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