The book “New Directions in Project Management” starts out with a look at ten ways to improve performance on projects. 

I’ve discussed in the past – and will continue to discuss in the future – thoughts on how projects have failed in the past and how we can improve our chances of project success going forward. 

So it’s always a treat for me to run across books and articles that share different views on this. 

After all, that’s what everyone here is striving for, right?.... project success.

Bypass an obstacle

Many projects come to a standstill because an obstacle appears in the path toward achieving their goals. The unfortunate reality is that when this happens, many projects sit idle – because teams, customers, and leadership are unsure of how to proceed. The results can become devastating. People become frustrated, the team loses momentum, and indecisiveness eats away morale and esprit de corps. People may focus on issues unrelated to the project, or insignificant issues related to the project become significant, as people look for meaning in their work.

This circumstance often arises because team leaders and members subscribe to an either/or or black/white perspective. When that happens, everything becomes significant and, when an obstacle arises, all work halts.

Instead, team leaders and members must distinguish between what is and is not important. The team must remember that the best action is rarely, if ever, simply standing still. The objective is to move forward by handling an obstacle. If it cannot be dealt with head-on, the team should go around it on the left or right, or go over or underneath it. Progress can continue if coupled with some resilience, perseverance, creativity, and leadership.

Cause people to stretch, not break

So many projects are given unrealistic deadlines that it is amazing any of them get done at all. These deadlines are not based on work to do, but by the whim of individuals having little knowledge about the effort required to meet the deadline. They are promises made to leadership, by leadership, or unreasonable demands made by customers that are promised at some point before the project ever gets underway.

Naturally, there are many consequences. The psychological effects often manifest themselves as burnout, turnover, and conflict. Additionally, the team is set up to fail because constraints are not considered when setting the deadline. Performance and productivity can begin to wane as reality confronts unrealistic expectations. Team members compete for scarce resources and start trade-off analyses of what is and is not important.

When making unrealistic demands, management, leadership, and even the customer must realize the impact of their decisions on individual and group performance. Enforcing an unrealistic date or goal may provide a nice exhibition of dominance and decisiveness; however, it can also cause dysfunctional behavior. It is imperative to take time to recognize the talents, knowledge, and skills of people performing the tasks; to identify the cost, schedule, and qualitative constraints; and to apply sound estimating techniques to complete the project. Only then can a realistic plan be put in place to encourage people to stretch, rather than break.  In other words, leadership needs to listen to the input from the project manager.

Focus on the goal

It is easy to overlook the purpose of a project when administering its details.  Team leaders and team members become so wrapped up in details that they lose sight of the entire purpose of their project.  People get so engrossed in the details, due to their some immediate concern, that they lose sight of the big picture and forget to ask if what they are doing is contributing toward accomplishing the final goal.

Keeping focus on the goal offers several advantages. First, it enables people to be proactive rather than reactive. People can choose what to respond to, rather than jumping at each situation. Second, it helps in distinguishing between what is and is not significant. Obviously, not everything is equally important, although some team members might think so. Third, focusing on the goal provides an objective standard of evaluation. The significance of a particular effort is determined by the degree to which it helps to achieve a final goal.

Ask this question: Is what is happening furthering the achievement of the final goal? It is important, therefore, to perform three actions. The first is to constantly query about progress, asking if what people are doing is furthering goal achievement. The second is to establish a consistent, standard “yardstick” for measuring progress, keeping in mind, of course, that the importance of the yardstick is to measure the right factors in order to determine the value of the current work. The bottom line is to remove any blinders leading to nearsighted decision-making and performance. While such decisions and performance might appear significant, in reality they do nothing, and perhaps even impede actual accomplishment.

Follow a standardized process

A common set of tools, procedures, and jargon can help a project progress efficiently and effectively toward its goal. Unfortunately, people often strongly resist following a standardized process. They fear that it stifles creativity and the empowerment of people. As a result, many projects become a chaotic mixture of tools, procedures, and techniques, requiring extensive effort to make them compatible. Naturally, this wastes time and effort, and actually hinders progress toward a goal.

A standardized process – when used effectively – can actually encourage creativity. It encourages creativity by allowing people to work with a given set of tools and techniques. A standardized process can definitely empower project personnel to work effectively and make good decisions for their team and projects based on past successes. Through standardization, people can anticipate and understand job requirements. Less conversion and relearning are required to complete tasks. People can operate autonomously, knowing the standards to follow during decision-making.

Standardization, therefore, offers several benefits from a project management and technical perspective. First, it enables the efficient and effective execution of project activities through consistency. Second, it enables better integration of activities because team members can see the interrelationships of their work with that of others. Third, it reduces rework because it enables the use of output developed on earlier projects. Finally, it improves communications because team members are on the same page – they are of similar understanding.

For projects, standardization involves two distinct areas; one is project management. Standardization involves using tools and executing activities to build plans and manage according to those plans. The other area is technical. Standardization involves identifying requirements and specifications, and constructing a product that satisfies both.

Learn from the past

Surely you’ve heard the saying “He who fails to study history is destined to repeat it.” We’ve all heard this, we all talk about lessons learned, yet we all seem to have a hard team learning from our past mistakes and the mistakes of others.  That’s why, many projects fail for the same reasons over and over again. In fact, many projects are dismal reminders that nothing changes.

Learning from the past – when done right - offers several benefits. It helps organizations avoid costly mistakes that occurred on similar projects in the past. In addition, it helps companies capitalize on previous successes. It also builds confidence and reduces risks for people who have worked on earlier projects.

Learning from the past involves learning both from oneself and from others. Of the two learning levels, learning from oneself is more difficult because it requires introspection. While learning from others can also be difficult, it is less so because there may be documentation or people may be available to provide an oral history or further insights.

Maintain ongoing communications

More projects have probably failed due to poor communications than from any other factor. I consider communication to be the #1 responsibility of the project manager and there’s no substitute for the project manager’s role in this – it can’t be passed of to someone.  Ironically, while everyone recognizes the contribution of good communications to success, it still remains a problem area on many projects and in many companies.

One reason is that people confuse the medium with communication. A medium is the vehicle for communicating, acting as an enabler of communication, rather than a substitute for it. With so many available medium – email, video conferencing, social media and other avenues across the internet - many people just assume that they will be good communicators.

All too often, the medium simply gives a poor communicator a louder voice. At least from a project management perspective, the medium is not the message. The other reason for poor communications is the lack of team members’ distinction between data and information. While data is unprocessed, information is data that is converted into something meaningful. When team members confuse the two, they send data rather than information, whereupon the recipient must go through the data to derive the information. Because this confusion manifests in electronic as well as paper format, many project team members generate countless data files and e-mails, and build innumerable Web pages replete with data but not information.

By contrast, good communication is providing the right information at the right time in the right amount to the right person. When that occurs, people operate on the “same wavelength.” They take part in better dialog, reducing the number and magnitude of misunderstandings. As a result of good communication, team members are also better able to adapt to change.

To realize the benefits of maintaining good communications, team members can perform three actions. The first is to concentrate on generating information rather than data. The second way team members can improve communications is to ensure that data and subsequent information are current and relevant. The third method of improving communications is to use the chosen medium as the principal means of communication to obtain the necessary data and information.

Record the work being done

On most projects, team members perform considerable work in management and development. Unfortunately, the work often goes unrecorded, and the knowledge and expertise is lost due to turnover and time constraints. This is a tremendous loss to companies that could have saved this knowledge and expertise, applying it on future, similar projects.  What we’re basically talking about is a combination of lessons learned and a project knowledge database.  It sounds great in theory, but companies and teams often overlook this effort and a lot of good knowledge and experience (both good and bad) is lost in the process.

If recording offers many benefits, why is it not done more thoroughly and more often? For one, it easier to react and see some tangible, immediate results than to take a proactive approach, which produces long-term rather than immediate results. In addition, such a process requires administrative overhead. Finally, even if it is done, it often gets buried, so it is overlooked and eventually lost.

Reuse previous work

While it is good for team members to feel creative on a project, unfortunately, their desire for creativity often leads to reinventing the wheel. There are major consequences when that occurs, including wasted effort due to repeating work, slowing of the project’s momentum, a failure to capitalize on the success of the past, and extension of the project’s life cycle. In other words, it is nonproductive.

Reuse enables organizations to use what was done before again, in a similar situation. The benefits include expediting the project life cycle, allowing team members to focus on more important issues, increasing the product’s reliability, and enabling team members to make modifications quickly. Because plans and products are built modularly, reuse also reduces complexity. Finally, it allows more accurate planning.

Reuse occurs on both the project management and technical development levels. For project management, teams may reuse sections of schedules from similar projects, segments of files loaded into automated scheduling packages, report formats and contents, and forms. Examples of reuse related to technical development include code, models, files generated from software tools, and specifications.

Seek buy-in by those involved

Perhaps the most powerful way to get a project to progress rapidly is through commitment by the people doing the work. Because buy-in provides people with ownership and a sense of empowerment, it generates a greater sense of responsibility and accountability. In turn, less effort is required to follow up on tasks.

Buy-in also encourages initiative.

Unfortunately, because many projects become one-man shows, there is little commitment. This can happen for a number of reasons: others are already stretched thin on several other projects, one persons assignments encompass most of the critical activities, or you just happen to have lazy individuals who make up the rest of the project team.  As a result, estimates are often unrealistic, representing scientific wildly assumed guesses (swags – yes, that’s the politically correct way of stating it as opposed to the way we all originally learned it), rather than being based on reliable, statistical calculations. There can also be a lack of commitment to the schedule, with team members filling in to be determined (TBD), rather than actually estimating task schedules. As time moves on and such consequences become aggravated, the lack of commitment can affect the project’s potential success. Then, while it becomes costly in terms of time, money, and effort to resolve these problems, there is still little commitment.

To help generate commitment, team managers can take an inventory of team members, learning not only about their knowledge, expertise, and experience, but also about their maturity and follow-up. This allows the manager to seek their counsel appropriately. Managers can also use public disclosure to attain and sustain commitment. When team members’ input is visible, regardless of perspective, there is less likelihood of their denying input or reducing commitment. Finally, and this is tied to the last point, team managers should not only gauge a person’s ability to do a task, but also his or her enthusiasm. While team members might have the requisite background, they may lack the corresponding level of excitement for doing a good job. Commitment comes from the heart — not the head.

Seek simplicity, not complexity

Simplicity easily yields to complexity. That is, it is always tempting to make a situation or a solution as complex as possible. People make a refinement here and a slight alteration there, and before anyone realizes it, the result is totally different from what was originally envisioned.

In distinguishing between simplicity and complexity, simplicity is recognizable when seen, but not definable. While projects always tend toward complexity, good projects result in simplicity when completed. These are usually the projects that satisfy the criteria for success in regard to cost, schedule, and quality.

In determining whether a plan is simple or complex, the symptoms are quite obvious. In the latter, many people request additions, changes, removals, or repositioning, so that the plan becomes full of exceptions and contingencies. Because this complexity makes it difficult to follow the plan, few ultimately do so. In another symptom of complexity, product developers must repeatedly explain their intent or meaning. In yet another indicator, the plan must be continually revised to accommodate different situations. The end result is similar to a rat following a path in a maze.

By contrast, simplicity forces clarity of thought, demonstrating clarity in destination and the path to take. It also requires less time and people resources to execute a plan, and gives people confidence because they know their mission and what must be done.

To encourage simplicity in project management, team members can first try to attain as much experience as possible in different environments; this provides insight on what works well. Also, they can capitalize on the experience of others to gain further insight.

Second, if team members determine that something can be done in two steps rather than four, they should choose the former, ignoring the tendency to believe that because something looks simplistic it must be wrong. More often than not, the correct solution is simplistic.

Third, project teams should ensure that all elements of a plan contribute toward accomplishing the final goal; otherwise, they should remove it. After all, it merely embellishes the plan, and might well increase complexity and confusion, either now or later. Finally, teams should remove biases from a plan. Thus, they should avoid treating an assumption as fact, and blatantly affecting approaches that have no basis in reality. Biases in fact and data only add to complexity.