Monday, 28 September 2009 00:00

People: Common Failure Symptoms

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In daily talks and presentations, I am often asked what the most common reasons are for project failures. I usually turn the question around and ask people what they think. It is a fun exercise and people list a mixture of symptoms and sources. As mentioned in the previous blog, one must drill past the symptoms and get down to the problem itself. It is my firm belief that most project problems are rooted in the people, however people are creatures of habit.

For conversation purposes, it is handy to classify the common problems into three categories—team, process and customer (see Table 1).

Team concerns are usually communication, attitude and motivational, skill set, internal scope creep and interrelationship problems. To address these takes a soft-skills approach. Training in organization development and working with difficult people is a great plus (more on this in an upcoming blog).

Problem Area Symptom


Attitude and motivation
Internal Scope Creep
Skill set


Risk Management
Change Management and Scope Issues
Estimation and Scheduling


Difficult, trying to get something outside of scope
Incomplete understanding of product (manifesting as scope issues)
Lack of Project Management (manifesting as scope issues)

Table 1: Major Failure Reasons

Internal scope creep is a nasty beast where the team is increasing scope by suggesting features to the customer. This requires close involvement with the team and training on the results of expanding scope. The root of this is the inability of the team members to say "no." The Project Manager needs to step in and use all means to correct this behavior.

Process problems are relatively straightforward to solve. They are:

  • Change management and scope control;
  • Document coordination;
  • Estimation and scheduling;
  • Risk management.

The worst of these to fix is a broken or misapplied process. The reason? A process has followers and people who believe in it—they have read it in a book, someone has told them they have to do it or they are unwilling to move away from it since it is their comfort zone. Changing the process may be more like changing the culture. Results change a culture, culture does not change results. Show results and the organization will follow.

Customer issues come in a variety of shapes and sizes but many times the solution is training the customer in project management techniques or their product. It may also require educating the project team in the customer’s way of doing things. This is especially true in international projects. The most common problem is a customer’s lack of understanding of the product. This may be solved by implementing a better change management process or moving to an Agile methodology. Poor Project Management skills can only be solved by education of the customer.

Regardless of the issues, it still takes drilling down to find the source. The project audit finds the symptom and project analysis finds the root cause. After identifying the source, it must be fixed and the people need to buy into the solution and help implement the changes. Identification is just the beginning of the work.

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