When Viable Projects Go Bad: How Teams Destroy Otherwise Workable Plans

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The Sinking Ship and Its Captain

Previously we took a look at project management failures that fell squarely onto the shoulders of the team leader. Bad communication skills, disorganization, sexism, racism and cronyism are just some of the inappropriate behaviors shown by an incompetent project manager. Most any worker has experience with these types of supervisors and team leaders.

On the flip side of the equation is the experienced team leader who nevertheless fails, not because of personal inexperience or incompetence, but rather because of a team that is unable or unwilling to move forward. There are at least three patterns that these teams show, which the manager clearly perceives but has very little power to change – short of disbanding the team and starting over with new workers.

1. Death Marches

Usually the death march pattern is forced upon a team by a supervisor. When the project manager oversees a number of teams, one of the team leads that reports back to the professional may undertake one or more death marches. The same type of derailment occurs at the hands of a team member with the most seniority on the job. InformIT defines the death march as any project where parameters “exceed the norm by at least 50 percent.”

The death march is marked by a sudden burst in productivity that forces team members to work long hours to the point of burnout. Without team lead approval, the member with the highest level of seniority may unilaterally decide to exclude certain peers from working on the project; the drop in productivity then leads to frantic activity because of the internal shifting of parameters.

Tip: A project manager faced with this situation must realize that she or he is at odds with a senior team member. Removal of the individual from the team backfires, since loyal peers may refuse to accept the manager’s leadership. Closer supervision of the tenured worker and further compartmentalization of the project into reachable benchmarks is the only choice.

2. Internal Change Demands

Usually it is the project owner who makes change requests. When they come fast and furious, they will sink any project. Cases in point are the handheld devices that 2010 census takers were supposed to use. Baseline outlines how a flurry of more than 400 change requests resulted in a boondoggle that cost the taxpayer approximately $14.5 billion – all for a project that was eventually scrapped.

Yet, did you know that change demands are not always external? In this case they may come from well-meaning team members. Reasons for such change requests are plentiful; tenured workers may attempt to show a new manager how “it” has always been done – by requesting changes. Other reasons include an inability to understand the scope of the project or the vision of the team leader.

Tip: Change demands alert the project manager to the fact that the leadership capabilities of the professional are being called into question. Avert this problem early on with team meetings that allow workers to ask questions and talk through processes. Insist on strict adherence to parameters identified; do not be afraid to dismiss team members for failing to follow the guidelines.

3. Team Members’ Inexperience

Vetting team members is not always possible; sometimes the project manager has to make do with a team simply because it is currently available. An over-reliance on educational backgrounds aggravates this problem. Team members are too sure of their theoretical understanding; lacking the hands-on expertise, they fail to realize when they make mistakes. A good example is the Sydney Opera House roof project. The Project Management Institute reveals that the initial estimate was $7 million; once complete, the cost was $104 million. To blame – among other shortfalls – were team members who lacked material knowledge and information.

Tip: The project manager with an inexperienced team must balance micromanagement with benchmark adherence reviews. Ad hoc training sessions are a possible avenue for avoiding costly and time-consuming mistakes. If the knowledge or experience gaps are too wide, it may be impossible to save the project.

It is clear that projects fail for lack of leadership. Although not frequently mentioned, it is just as clear that projects fail due to individual team members, the interactions between them and perhaps even the attitudes they have toward the project manager. Recognizing the potential pitfalls early on is the team leader’s only hope at averting project failure. A project leader who realizes that group dynamics make it difficult to govern performance must act immediately; failure to do so transfers blame for a failed project from the shoulders of the team members to the shoulders of the leader.