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Nine Ways to Avoid Project Meltdowns

New research shows how successful managers keep complex projects on track.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Unexpected pitfalls in major projects are inevitable. So how can managers avoid or minimize the damage and keep their initiatives on track? Based on discussions, interviews, and surveys with the project teams and senior managers overseeing 35 major initiatives at 17 multinational Fortune 1000 firms, the paper Managing Risks in Complex Projects identifies these nine best practices.

Lesson 1: Anticipate problems. Although it’s easier said than done, spotting the potential of setbacks such as limited resources or technology glitches before a project’s launch can prove crucial down the line. If you consider what could go wrong, managers will know how to respond quickly when problems arise.

Lesson 2: Risks are common. Even if you follow step one, you won’t anticipate everything. The key is limiting the damage. Continually review the design and scope of projects. Also try “management by wandering around”—have project leaders casually stroll through the workplace to keep up-to-date on the status of employees, equipment, and projects.

Lesson 3: Contingencies, if allowed to go unchecked, can spread like a virus. Don’t belittle or overlook events that may seem innocuous, such as the redesign of a component or the resignation of a team member. These surprises often trigger larger workflow problems that can lead to confusion, delays, excuses, and missed sales opportunities.

Lesson 4: Collaboration is the key. Involve all stakeholders—team members, support staff, customers, contractors, and other partners—in the project planning phase. This will help build a collective focus on spotting and dealing with risks as early as possible.

Lesson 5: Create an effective culture of risk management. Internal processes receive too much blame from top managers. Outside dangers such as shifting market conditions and fluctuating consumer preferences can be just as damaging, and more difficult to assess. Consider using focus groups to gauge consumer or client trends. Managers can also help foster an environment mindful of external forces by emphasizing how the project fits in with the company’s overall strategy and vision.

Lesson 6: Make employees an asset, not a liability. It may sound touchy-feely, but the people driving your projects represent both a major source of uncertainty and the best way to fight back against sudden crises. Effective communication can save or strengthen a project; squabbling and rivalries between departments or team members can kill it.

Lesson 7: Give project leaders the necessary authority and flexibility to deal with unexpected hitches. No matter how thorough and detailed the plan, hazards will surface. Project managers and teams must have enough autonomy to adapt to the inevitable changes without jeopardizing other facets of the project.

Lesson 8: Test the feasibility early and often. Then test again. Don’t wait until a major sub-phase, integration point, or the end of the project to find out whether things work. Leaps in technology now allow better and faster analysis throughout the project life cycle. Many of the companies in this study reduced their risks considerably by moving up tests to the front end of the project.

Lesson 9: Simplify the work. Complex projects amplify the uncertainties and risks inherent in any innovative activity. Whatever can be done to simply the initiative’s process, scope, and deliverables—without compromising its potential—will enhance the chances for success.

See the related article, “Curbing Risks in Complicated Projects.”


Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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