By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman
The latest research from the Project Management Institute (PMI) is hard to swallow: 44 percent of technical projects fail.
Dominic Lepore, CEO and founder of Terrapin Consulting, has figured out why the failure rate is so high.
The former systems engineer studied the results of web initiatives for the Healthcare.gov rollout. He found that half of the states did a very good job, while the other half’s sites launched poorly or late, despite having the same goal. What were the underlying causes of the botched initiatives? Chalk it up to poor blocking and tackling.
“The problems stemmed from an inability to manage the scope or schedule, or poor change control,” Lepore said during a phone interview. “The challenge is even greater in complex engineering projects, because there’s no time to recover from mistakes,” he adds. “I think project managers know what to do; they just need to execute.”
Use these five tips to help make your next complex engineering project a winner.
Avoid Detours; Define Your Outcomes First
Projects become more complex when the outcomes aren’t clearly defined from the outset, noted Dave Wakeman, principal of Wakeman Consulting Group. It’s the project manager’s job to keep the team focused.
“It’s easy to get lost or sidetracked when you don’t know what success looks like,” Wakeman said.
Teams get bogged down or off schedule when engineers pursue the most complete answer to a problem even though 80 percent is good enough. That happens when you haven’t defined the objective.
“The goals, timeframe, schedule, resources should be specified upfront,” Wakeman says. “Nothing should be open-ended.”
Devote More Time to Planning
Project managers may be pressured to get started or to make sure “everyone looks busy” when an engineering firm lands a big project. However, they need to push back on impatient leaders or clients and stick with the fundamentals. Comprehensive planning sets up a complex project for success.
“You may get a false sense of security if you cut corners and have some initial success,” Lepore says. “But you’ll fail big later on if you don’t follow proven project management standards.”
Break Down Large Projects into Manageable Chunks
Small projects have a much higher success rate than large, complex projects. As this brief from Bain & Company points out, the engineers who built Rome’s Colosseum were successful because they treated the massive undertaking like a collection of smaller initiatives. The method used by those early Roman engineers still applies to modern, complex projects.
Don’t Get Lost in the Weeds
Naturally, PM’s need to be detail-oriented; but don’t lose sight of the big picture, notes Conrado Morlan, a certified project manager and senior consultant with Daugherty Business Solutions.
“Reiterating how the project will benefit clients or impact other project teams will increase your team’s motivation and sense of urgency,” he says. “Engineers need a sense of purpose to continue pushing forward, especially when the scope changes or they encounter a delay.”
Amp Up Communications
Increasing communications significantly lowers risk in large, complex projects. After all, an effective communications strategy is the glue that binds the team to the project, the engineering firm and its mission.
However, that doesn’t mean more emails, Lepore says.
“Have more conference calls and daily stand-ups and other face-to-face meetings,” he notes. “And give everyone access to the same documents by housing them in a document management system, because it keeps everyone on the same page and increases productivity.”
“Communicate in a way that everyone can understand,” says Wakeman. “Eliminate acronyms and de-jargonize task and project documents,” he adds. “Otherwise, you just increase the learning curve for contract engineers and new hires. Remember, it’s a project manager’s job to simplify- not add- to the complexity of a large, complicated engineering project.”
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