Fixing the 5 Big Issues that Spell Disaster for Your Project

Sailboat racing with crew holding it steady
GettyImages/Greg Pease

Just about every experienced project manager or project team participant has lived through a situation where circumstances converge to tip the initiative over and flip the boat, leaving people to bob around wondering what happened. The challenge for all of us is to recognize our critical mistakes ahead of time and counter them before we reach a point from which there is no recovery. This article offers guidance for project professionals on reversing the 5 big issues that threaten to plunge too many projects into the lake.


1. Purpose Drift

Beyond the executive sponsor, project manager and a few core team members, most individuals and work groups do not think much about the overarching purpose of the project on a daily basis. They are focused on their work tasks, deadlines and the problems and obstacles in front of them, and the big picture blurs in the background of their work. The loss of the view to purpose sows the seeds of a variety of problems including motivation, morale, quality, creativity and innovation.

To head-off purpose drift, strive to keep this critical context in clear view for all project participants. Some project managers review the purpose at the beginning of every status or milestone review meeting. Others engage their core team members to reiterate purpose to the work teams regularly. Purpose is highlighted to provide context for the need to find creative solutions to vexing dilemmas. One team I worked with included the project purpose statement at the top of every project document.

Regardless of the tactic used to reinforce purpose, high performance project teams find a way to bring critical context to the work of team members nearly every day.

2. Customer Confusion

A close cousin to purpose drift, confusion over the true customer for the initiative contributes to all manner of destabilizing problems.

For projects where the customer is tangible and available, find a way to regularly involve the customer with the team. Build the customer into key decision-making steps and solicit input on deliverables along the way. When the customer cannot be present, one team I encountered brings a stuffed animal to the meeting as a proxy. When a decision is called for, the team members actively point at this customer representative and ask, “What does he/she truly need?” If they cannot describe the answer confidently, the actual customer is engaged to provide additional context.

For those initiatives where the project is some broader group or target audience, the customer owner (often a marketing team member) must be accountable for building out and communicating the customer persona along with the key challenges the initiative is intended to solve for this audience. This step is commonly bypassed or given short shrift, inevitably leading to downstream problems with prioritization, scope creep and other maladies that practically guarantee getting the mast stuck in the mud.

3. Scope Creep

As well documented as the phenomenon of scope creep is in project literature, it remains epidemic in our organizations and on our project initiatives.

It takes incredible discipline on the part of the project manager and executive sponsor to minimize the drift and distraction that results from incorporating good but out of scope insights and ideas.

While scope is not necessarily iron-clad, a change to the expected output of the project must be considered only in the context of the true purpose of the project and the needs of the customer. And remember, customers will invariably say “yes” to more features, when in reality, the project team must laser focus on the problems being solved and assess whether the scope change is material to this cause. Build the process to assess scope changes through the proper and very tight filters or you risk contributing to a downstream tipping over of your initiative.

4. Confusion Around Team Structure

The old Abbot and Costello comedy routine, “Who’s on first” where the two engage in an extended banter depicting confusion over roles and positions in baseball based on statements rather than questions (Who is on first…a fact, someone named What is on second and another character, I Don’t Know, is on third), underscores too many team situations.

In the literature and study of teams, one of the common maladies of underperforming teams is confusion over who is truly involved and what their core responsibilities and accountabilities are for the initiative.

In every case where I have encountered a high performance project team, great effort was put into establishing team membership and defining roles and accountabilities. Some teams have members define individual charter documents spelling out core responsibilities and accountabilities and they ensure these documents are visible and accessible for everyone to see and review. Others police team boundaries carefully to ensure that membership is not fluid with individuals joining or leaving randomly.

Part and parcel of team structure is also ensuring clarity around the role of the leader. One project manager I encountered uses the question: “once this initiative is over, what will you say that I did?” to initiate discussion around her role as leader. She translates the input from team members into a job description complete with accountabilities and publishes this to the entire team.

5. Values Deficiency

My final destabilizing force focuses on the values or lack thereof on many teams. A set of well-defined values describes the expected behaviors for all team participants. The values define accountability and the expectations for issues of problem-solving, settling disagreements, proposing innovations and navigating the hurdles of working together.

Effective project managers work with their team members and executive sponsor to clarify and codify values and make them visible to all. They also focus on reinforcing or living to the values on a daily basis. By modeling the right behaviors, they help embed the values deep in the team culture. While it is ideal to establish clear team values at the beginning of the initiative, this can take place later in the process as needed to help right a group careening out of control.

The Bottom Line for Now

There are myriad destabilizing influences that can combine to tip your project over into the metaphorical lake and mud, however, the five above are root causes of potentially huge problems. If you sense your project team is tipping in slow motion, it pays to revisit each of these issues and avoid an uncomfortable outcome.