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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Keeping Projects On Track

Managing a major project can be overwhelming at times, and it's hard to know what to do when one well-thought out part of the plan comes crashing down.  Keeping the project’s momentum going while recovering from that initial mistake takes tremendous composure and focus. Almost every major project will face potential failure at some point, and it is the manager's job to keep the project from derailing.
KeyedIn Solutions, a software solutions and consulting firm, recently published a white paper titled "Averting Project Disaster." The authors note most projects fail due to lack of planning, control or communication or, most often, a combination of all three. Failure can come in the form of cost or schedule overruns, inability to achieve project objectives, or even damage to the organization’s financial health or mission. But there always is a turning point. The authors point out that just about every project will be headed in the wrong direction at some stage of its life cycle. The key is to spot that looming catastrophe and to address it before it becomes unavoidable.
The problem, however, is the people most involved with the project are often the least equipped to see when it's going off-track. Even when they start to notice the warning signs, they may be reluctant to change directions. But timing is crucial, and avoiding failure requires managers to act quickly, especially if things already are drifting significantly off-course before the warning signs become clear.
While KeyedIn's report states that there's no secret recipe or silver bullet to avoiding project failure, setting the right goals and building a knowledgeable, experienced and capable team is a good start. Of course, it's also difficult to succeed without the proper funding and support from above.
When problems do crop up, focus first on containment, the authors advise. Try to drown out any background noise and shelve daily issues to instead focus on identifying and controlling the problem. Then, assess the project’s current status and map out options for moving forward to overcome or avoid the hangup. Once an option has been chosen, be sure to realign the formal project plan, budget and scope with what can realistically be achieved, given the revised approach. Finally, KeyedIn recommends communicating with and reengaging the team and any stakeholders, and reassuring them that issue has been addressed and demonstrating the way forward.
Whether or not you have had to make a significant adjustment in the middle of a struggling project, shared understanding and clear communication among team members are perhaps the most important factors in a successful endeavor. A strategy and well-defined tactics for execution do little good if they are not communicated. KeyedIn believes without shared understanding and clear communication all projects will fail, particularly large, expensive ones involving many employees on many levels and with many job functions. The report quotes George Bernard Shaw in saying, “The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Managers also must be flexible to changing environments. The best laid plans can still lead to failure if the circumstances change but the project’s approach does not. And even if inflexibility doesn't kill a project, it can keep you and your team from being as efficient as possible. "Those thousands of tiny, imperceptible, sometimes irrelevant, often unknown changes all join together to define your life, your career and your project,” KeyedIn notes. “And, above all, remain focused on the objectives, the delivery, the business case, the cost and the expected outcome."
Large projects provide significant opportunities -- and risks -- for federal managers. But keeping an eye out for red flags and addressing them quickly can minimize problems and avoid failure.
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