When a project goes wrong, it often goes really wrong.

A study from McKinsey found that half of large IT projects run 45% over budget.  Worse, 17% go so badly wrong that they endanger the company itself.

As the McKinsey study confirms, most major project problems start at the top. Executive leaders and project sponsors have the power to create the circumstance that will allow project managers and their teams to succeed.

But when leaders don’t put the right conditions in place for success, projects are prone to going off the rails.

Fortunately, as an executive leader, you have a lot of influence over how major projects unfold.

Here are 7 things executives should be doing to ensure project success. 

1. Ensure that there’s strong alignment between project goals and the overall strategic priorities.

Especially with IT projects, the discussion and planning can quickly collapse to a narrow focus on technical details, budgets, and timelines.  However, every project should be well-aligned with the broader business strategy and include a compelling business case.

By keeping the strategic goals top of mind, sponsors and project teams can prevent a great deal of scope creep, cost overruns, and project failures.  

2. Ensure that there is a clear project sponsor and decision maker.  

Every project requires executive support and feedback. The sponsor should be actively engaged with the project, understand the work required, and be committed to maintaining strategic alignment of the project goals and organizational goals.

3. Include everyone who will be involved in or impacted by the project from the early planning stages.

Missing stakeholders mean missing perspectives and requirements – and gaps in requirements are one of the top reasons why projects hit barriers or fail.

4. Schedule a regular cadence of steering committee meetings with the sponsors and key stakeholder leaders.

Consistent communication and engagement from sponsors and stakeholders help ensure that the project remains aligned with strategic objectives, that project teams are appropriately resourced, and that the project stays on track, 

5. Arrange for project teams to have access to the full range of expertise they require.

We often focus on the technical expertise of the project team, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Project teams need access to business expertise and functional knowledge throughout the project, so they can better align project outcomes with strategic goals and stakeholder needs.

6. Provide sufficient training and support to functional teams that are working outside their normal areas of competency.

Functional business teams with limited project experience often find themselves tasked with project work that looks very different from their daily operational work.  

But there’s no reason for us to believe that someone who is good at coaching people could take on the development of a detailed plan for data validation — not without additional training and support.

Be sure that your functional teams have the tools they need in order to succeed with the project work they’re assigned.

7. Be prepared to make tough decisions and support the team

As an executive leader or sponsor, it’s your responsibility to create conditions in which your project team can do its best work.  Be ready to initiate difficult conversations, choose between conflicting priorities, and advocate for the resources your team will need in order to be successful.

Studies consistently show that executive leadership and sponsor engagement are major determinants of successful project completion.  And their absence is highly correlated with project failures.

As a leader, you have the power to set every project on the path to success. Use it wisely, and give your project managers and teams the support and guidance they need to succeed. 🙂

2 Comments. Leave new

  • Paul Dandurand
    October 6, 2020 6:21 pm

    Great post Annmarie. It’s funny that these project failure rates have remained static or have gotten worse over the past decade despite more modern project tools and many more trained project managers. One key challenge is the tools in the market are not designed for implementing better project processes. They leave it up to the teams to just throw in a task bucket list. Task lists don’t solve problems, people do. So, how about a project tool that puts people at the forefront and the best practices you listed above ready to execute at their finger tips?

    • Annmarie Curley
      October 7, 2020 4:09 pm

      I agree Paul. As project managers, we can tend to run our projects as tasks that just need to be completed rather than people-centric initiatives. PMs need to be more aware of how their PM process impacts their team and ensure they are working towards outcomes rather than completed tasks. I often tell my professional PM students that team members need to be able to visualize the plan, fully understand their responsibilities and see that they are making progress towards the outcome. I often recommend Pie as the tool to help teams achieve this – thanks for all your hard work and dedication to building a tool that is more people-centric than other PM tools.


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