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As part of our networking events, we had the pleasure to host an evening dedicated to the challenges in projects and project management. The critical question is: What is going on in projects, that drives so many of them into troubled waters? 

What is a project and why do they (still) struggle so often?

What is a project
What is a project?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a project as “a piece of planned work […] that is finished over a period of timeand intended to achieve a particular purpose.” This definition covers the keyelements of a project, yet from our experience, there are additional qualitative factors that should be taken into account when dealing with projects seriously: 

  • Projects are unique: The reason for initiating a project is typically to achieve a significant change in an organisation or team. This describes an undertaking that is outside the regular scope of work, making the project and its tasks and procedures unique for the organisation.
  • Projects are cost-intense: All project management methodologies incur overhead – and, building upon the previous point, the significant change requires the involvement of a larger number of people with a broader skill set. Consequentially, the direct and indirect costs are substantial.
  • Projects are important: When such large undertakings are initiated, they require support from the management and senior stakeholders. The outcome of a project is crucial for the management’s performance assessment – it becomes vital regarding the company’s and the individuals’ performance. In some cases, the career and promotions are directly dependent on the project result.
Projects are not necessarily a walk in the park
Projects are not necessarily a walk in the park

This combination means that projects are being closely observed while they are aimed at changing the organisation. These conditions make conflicts quite likely. You can associate projects with different metaphors but – one thing is for sure: projects are important, and they involve humans. This means it is not always “rosy” and working together to build something new requires “rolling the sleeves up” individually and jointly.

How to spot challenges in projects – before it is too late?

We have distilled our experiences from a diversity of projects in different industries. The result is a comprehensive list of five symptoms to watch out for in projects.

Symptom One: Pressure

Pressure in projects
Symptom One: Pressure

Pressure comes in different shapes. It starts with time pressure without taking expert opinions into account. If the team does not agree on expectations beforehand, expectations provide almost with certainty reason for conflict and waste of time and energy. Pressure can be subtle as well – watch out for slipping work-life-balance, rises in sick leaves, and burn-outs. Overt forms of influence are slogans and statements like “work harder!”, “not fast enough!”. This is often mixed with shouting, screaming, or the milder form of raising the voice. While this is often effective in the short term, these are unacceptable attempts to influence and manage. You would be surprised how often this happens. A new management style leads to a noticeable improvement, and it will take some time for habitual toughs to realise that this is not acceptable anymore.

Symptom Two: Abandoned deliverables and clutter

Abandoned Deliverable and Clutter
Symptom Two: Abandoned Deliverable and Clutter

This symptom describes a situation where deliverables, e.g. documentation, specifications etc…, are abandoned in an incomplete state and are now cluttering the project collaboration space. It should go without saying that every team has to have a collaboration space, used to interchange pieces of work. The other side of the same coin is overproduction – having too many things of the same type. This applies to documents, document versions, (IT) tools used in the project, methodologies and approaches, and the like.

Symptom Three: Gossip and power struggles

Symptom Three: Gossip and Power Struggle
Symptom Three: Gossip and Power Struggle

Gossip and grapevine are the slow poison for project work – problematic chatter and the segregation of team members into tribes. On the one hand, this creates disparities in information, and it amplifies perceived realities and judgements among team members. Power struggles itself can be seen typically between subject matter experts or managers. Some can be playful and entertaining, but usually, it leads to the building of “gangs” in the project team, where collaboration across those gangs becomes increasingly tricky and tensed.

Symptom Four: Rebels and Smoke

Symptom Four: Rebels and Smoke
Symptom Four: Rebels and Smoke

You have probably seen it yourself – at some point in a challenging project, emotions and challenges boil up. Discomfort and non-compliance expressed in the working process are the elements to look out for. These are specific outlets of conflicts – in general, and the following golden rule holds: “Where there is smoke, there is fire.”

A word of caution here: It is always good to maintain a certain level of subjectiveness – often a “devil’s advocate” can help to identify weak spots, which should not be confused with a naysayer.

Symptom Five: The Lone Wolf

Symptom Five: The Lone Wolf
Symptom Five: The Lone Wolf

If the team doesn’t fix it, then you do it yourself? Better not. Such Lone Wolf scenarios are not more than the last resort for project members who would love to complete the project successfully. When meetings are not intended regularly, or pieces of work which should have been compiled by a group of people yet are delivered (repetitively) by a particular team meeting, it is a clear sign for a breakdown of communication and trust.

Unblock those situations.

When facing such situations, you have two options to choose from: 1. Increase the pressure further and to include consequences 2. Humbly understand such issues stated above are symptoms of an underlying cause. To create an atmosphere for solving the cause instead of the effect, we recommend for steps.

  • Step 1: Take the pressure out.
    It is far better for the project to take a day off, send people home earlier, work on other things. If a deadline doesn’t agree with this, engage a core team to deliver the minimal scope for the deadline and resume with the whole team later. 
  • Step 2: Shift the focus from the individual to the agreed target or objective.
    It is significantly easier to speak about “where to go” instead of digging in personal activities which are often perceivedas an intrusion.
  • Step 3: Communicate, communicate, communicate.
    Do whatever it takes, go wherever it is helpful – a change of circumstances and open communication allows blockages to dissolve and recreates the engagement od team members. If possible, create a coworking space – even if this requires occupying a coffee shop to sit and talk with each other.
  • Step 4: Focusing on Objectives and Key Results.
    Once communication is establishedagain, it is time to revisit the objectives and key results (OKR). OKR is a much more powerful approach compared to smartgoals, as they address qualitative and quantitative elements of tasks. It is important to visualise and communicate your objectives openly. Your objectives should always contribute to the company’s objectives.

Summary

Work is an essential aspect of life, and projects are omnipresent. Especially in challenging projects it is important to realise that everyone involved has a choice – a choice to take part and contributing to the greater project objectives, or not. Passion led us here, so we highly recommend keeping things in perspective and always to keep each other’s respect. On this basis, we were able to achieve great results in projects of different sizes and industries.

Best Advise: Passion led us here, so let's focus on the choice everyone has in a project
Best Advise: Passion led us here, so let’s focus on the choice everyone has in a project

Thank you for your interest – please follow us for more insights!
Watch our summary on YouTube here.

Read our Definition of Done to learn more on how to end a project successfully.

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