By Lawrence Levine

All of us, and especially project managers, like to believe the adage that no one appearing for work intends to foul things up. Nonetheless, project snafus are often the result of human error.

Having managed multiple-city projects with roots stretching to other continents, I’ve discovered five overarching obstacles to project success:

  1. Underestimating a project’s scope.
  2. Not budgeting for the time team members must spend performing their routine, day-to-day work.
  3. Imprecise planning to accomplish a foggy project outcome.
  4. Lack of financial flexibility to cover unexpected costs.
  5. Losing a founding champion.

Here are some tips you can use to avoid these each of these obstacles to project completion.

Solution to obstacle 1: Define a project’s scope
A rough equivalent to a “time-and-motion” study can be a big help in determining how long a project will take to complete. Look back to past project experiences to help you estimate the time required to take similar steps in the new project. Or, if this project crosses uncharted territory, you may try to project estimates by performing a sample process change. For instance, determining the time required to change business practices might be approached by first determining the steps taken to accomplish the change, then performing and measuring a sample process change, and, finally, recording the measurements.

Solution to obstacle 2: Plan for “routine work”
It isn’t always easy or even possible to dedicate employees solely to project completion. Project team members usually need to continue their “routine work,” in addition to working on the project. Often, these competing assignments end up diffusing worker focus and diminishing the effort they put toward completing the project.

There are two ways that front-end planning can solve this problem. First, you can cut down on the damage done by distraction by enlisting the appropriate number of (human) resources to begin with, and have those team members schedule focused daily project time. Or, you can use creative ways to motivate team members to get more done in less time: performance bonuses, post-project “comp time,” and extension of the end date, to name a few. And—don’t faint—deadline compression, if used judiciously, can make project workers think more economically.

Solution to obstacle 3: Make plans and goals as specific as possible
A clear plan, including a project timeline; a chain of command establishing authority, responsibility, and accountability; and a vision of post-project outcomes that’s mindful of budget limitations is crucial to ensure project success. Project objectives should be consistent with overall business objectives and must relate to enhancing growth, improving existing business practices, evaluating proposed practice changes, adding capabilities, improving supply-chain integration, enhancing efficiency, and resolving kinks in operations.

Solution to obstacle 4: Create financial flexibility with a budget cushion
Unanticipated costs can derail even the best-managed project. These cost increases could come from either service providers or subcontractors—or both. It’s almost impossible to completely shield project managers from unanticipated cost increases. However, if careful risk assessment at a project’s outset has determined a high risk for cost increases, you should create a budget cushion to cover costs in the worst-case scenario. No one will complain if you spend less than you anticipate.

Solution to obstacle 5: Make all managers sign on the dotted line
The mid-stream departure of a project “champion,” or sponsor, can lead to project failure. However, if you’ve thought ahead and have a signed agreement from all managers affected by a project, you can lessen the damage. Also, thorough documentation of duties and functions may help sway a new “champion” to come aboard mid-project.

However, if the sponsoring organization doesn’t offer a replacement quickly, they may be sending an implicit message that the project won’t be pursued to completion. This should alert internal project managers to quickly return themselves and their team members to routine business, and external project managers should either have a frank meeting with the top person or make sure the client company has paid for services rendered.

Remember that changes in financial resources, loss of a sponsor, or lack of focus can easily derail a project. But with a little forethought and proper planning, you can beat the most common obstacles and deliver a completed project on deadline.
If you’re a project manager who’s battled these project pitfalls, write and tell us about your experience. Perhaps you’ve found a better way to plan for financial instability or redistribute “routine work.” We want to hear your ideas! Send us an e-mail or post your comments below.