Five ways to fix your broken project culture

business-strategy2One of the most common issues that I hear from potential clients is that they don’t have a strong project delivery culture.

Projects are continually late, over budget or lack engagement because no-one really understands the value they’ll provide to the organisation.

The easiest way to set your project up for success is to agree ‘how’ you’re going to work together on it, before you agree on the ‘what’ (the plan). Yet, time and again, we skip this most important element and just get started.

So if you find yourself in the position where your project is going off the rails, don’t panic –there are five things you can do to fix it.

In reality there are many more than five, however in the work that I do with organisations to help them establish a culture that delivers at the start of their projects, these five have the most impact.

The good news is, that projects that have gone bad are all fixable.  All of them, without exception. You just have to want to fix them and accept that the answers are not in that project management textbook that sits on the desk.

Instead, the solutions lie in the determination and commitment to be different, to focus on what’s really important in projects – the people and the way they work together. This is the work that I do and I love doing it, because you get immediate engagement, focus, buy-in and results.

Right, let’s get on with the five points:

1: Establish the ‘Why?’

For the project to really matter and for the people who are working on it to really care, it’s got to line up with those things that your company said they would address at the start of the year. In other words, your strategy. The second that you deviate from that, you lose people and the kitchen conversations start: ‘I have no idea why we are doing this?’, ‘this doesn’t line up with what we said we’d do’, ‘we’re only doing this because the brand manager went to [insert name of competitor] and saw what they had’ and so on. The project has to fit your strategy, not the other way around. Only then will people get it and buy into it. Obviously, you have to have a strategy to begin with, but that’s a whole other article.

Establish ‘why’ you’re doing the project and make sure everyone understands what will be different after it finishes.

2: The Project Manager has to be someone you want to talk to

At the start of a recent assignment with a retail client I arranged a meeting with the project manager to talk about how we were going to plan in the sessions around developing the culture.

Prior to the meeting, I was warned by their boss that they’d be really helpful providing I caught them on the right day. If I didn’t I may have to start again the following day. At which point red flashing lights and klaxons started going off in my head (and that’s hard stuff to internalise, let me tell you). Project management is a leadership and communications business, it always has been, and always will be, so if you’re not able to approach the project manager at any time of the day and get a positive interaction, then you have a problem. A big one.

The project manager has to be someone you want to talk to and, more than that, they have to make the time for everyone.

3: Make time for real work

I love meetings, I really do. Providing they have a purpose, involve the right people (note: not ‘everyone’), are focused on actions and start and finish on time. Chocolate biscuits also help. However, when you have meeting after meeting after meeting and there’s no time to do anything that actually moves the project forward, then you can expect your project to fail. Spectacularly.

Amongst the phrases to set the alarm bells ringing are such gems as: ‘I have back-to-backs all day’, ‘I need to block out [insert day] to get things done’, ‘7.30am is the only time I can find across the next two weeks when everyone is free’.

In order to deliver projects and find time to do incredible stuff, you need time. As much of it as you can get. So use the mornings for meetings and save the afternoons for work. Your project will thank you for it.

4: Make decisions and move on

When I work ‘one on one’ with project managers I tell them that when faced with a decision, they need to make it quickly. Not hastily or without context, but quickly. Nothing says ‘this project is doomed’ more than an important issue that has remained unresolved for weeks. Unfortunately, we have got ourselves into the position where we’re afraid to make a decision because of the potential consequences. It has nothing to do with risk aversion and has everything to do with fear. The way to deal to fear is to feel it, acknowledge it and then face it head on and make a decision. If it turns out to be the wrong one, show some humility, come up with some options to fix it, then make another decision.

Too many projects suffer from decision paralysis, don’t make yours one of them.

5: The plan is key to making it all happen

I’m making a huge assumption that you have a plan, if not, then you need to stop immediately. Do not pass go or collect your project budget. Get the plan right (NOTE: not perfect as this is unachievable) and then start, not before.

Once you have a plan it’s important to stick to it. As soon as you veer away from it without good (project) reasoning for doing so then it’s almost certain that what will be built won’t meet the customer’s needs. Worse still is when you don’t even reference the plan and choose instead to ‘go with the flow’. That approach is fine if you really don’t care about the needs of the customer but I’m guessing that you do. In which case develop the plan, keep it updated and actively manage the risks to it. After all, along with motivating the project team, that’s the most important thing a project manager can do.

If addressed early enough, in the right manner and by people who have the right skill set, then all projects and their cultures are fixable. What are you doing to fix yours?

Colin D Ellis is an international speaker, trainer and the author of The Conscious Project Leader, published earlier this year to explain how successful projects are created from a focus on developing leaders.


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