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Why Projects Falter

Last month, I commented on the value of the project team model for certain kinds of initiatives in foodservice. Exploring the subject in detail is well beyond the scope of this column. However, it is worth considering the most common reasons project teams falter. Some are almost pre-destined to fail because managers do not follow some very basic rules. Here are a few of the main pitfalls to avoid:

Failure to support a project manager. Many managers will initiate projects but don't have the time to actively manage them. He or she must then be willing to relinquish both responsibility and authority for the assignment to someone else. The team leader must be seen as such by other team members. If that is not clearly done, the result is often a project whose responsibilities are vaguely established and which in the end is left to "fend for itself" until it reaches an inevitable crisis point.

Appointing a project manager without time or skills to manage it. You can't give someone more work time just by creating an assignment. Discuss time commitments with the leader in advanceand help him or her to eliminate or delegate other responsibilities to ensure adequate time for the job at hand. And, if you delegate authority to someone who isn't capable of handling it, don't expect others to jump in to save the day. Team members will often let an incapable leader fail, and he and the project will go down together.

No incentive for project ownership. Some projects inherently create organizational heroes if they are successful. In such cases, it's usually not hard to establish buy-in among team members, as long as it is clear that the glory will be shared.

But many projects are more problematicespecially if they represent-extra work for staff whose plates are already full. As a department head, you need to find ways to address this early on by lobbying your administration for bonus money, perks, or other incentives to generate commitment to the project.

At the very least, you need to recognize successful project contributions at review time. Or, is your culture such that, once a project is completed, it falls into the "that's just part of your regular job" category? If your organization operates this way, it will become harder and harder to successfully execute new projects.

Failure to get top management support. This should go without saying. If there isn't a concensus that a project is a priority, be cautious about embarking on it.

Under-resourcing a team. In an era when everyone is asked "to do more with less," it's easy to use that justification for why there are no additional resources when a team needs them. Successful managers are indeed able to accomplish "more with less," but they are also successful at getting an administration to provide resources when they're needed.

A related issue: allowing a project team to be formed with a strong leader but weak members. This can easily happen when members must come from other departments or groups, where managers don't want to lend their best employees. If you want great project execution, start with great teams.

Failure to establish clear goals and recognize project dependencies. When a project is first established and a project manager named, you will probably want to sit in on the first meeting or two. That's when an overall timeline will be established, along with specific milestones, deliverables and due dates. Goals and expectations need to be clearly defined.

You may want to agree on some of these with your project manager in advance, but should make sure team members have appropriate input to suggest reasonable changes because of other work conflicts they may have. Too often, management will ignore competing projects or deliverables and act as though projects are independently staffed.

If a realistic timeline and deliverables aren't established early on, along with buy-in from team members, the project will likely start to falter almost immediately. If deliverable dates aren't clearly set, don't expect "common sense" to become a guiding force. Good project management recognizes that many tasks will depend on first completing other tasks. Keeping deliverables on schedule ensures that such " dependencies" don't become excuses that hold up the entire project.

Politicization of matrix relationships. When lines of authority are vague or conflict, you are asking for trouble. Learn to recognize these ahead of time and deal with them effectively. They will not take care of themselves.

Failure to keep a project, its deliverables and its progress regularly documented in writing. Progress reports should not be verbal. And don't fall for the idea that the time required documenting progress in writing is "just unnecessary paperwork." Recognize that having a project manager take the time to provide succinct, regular, written reports to you and other team members is an essential "cost of doing project business."

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