You have a project problem and it’s bigger than you think

Photo by Kevin Jarrett on Unsplash

What can be done to solve it?

There’s a better than decent chance a project you’re working on right now is headed for disappointment. The academics tell us that 70% of the projects organizations start will fail to meet their original business intent.

That’s a lot. Cut the rate in half and it’s still a lot.

Take a look at your work calendar and count the number of projects you’re spending time on this week. How many of those are you willing to settle for less than expected results? One? Two? Half?


The research is not on your side.

And a failed initiative is just the start. Bad projects have consequences.

Missed competitive opportunities, runaway budgets, vendor lawsuits, and frustrated employees are just a few of the negative outcomes. The more personal results include sleepless nights, crippling anxiety, career speed bumps, and the like.

Separate research tells us the long list of “Why?” includes a lack of executive sponsorship, poor communication, an unprepared project team, scope creep, misunderstood workflow, an inability to articulate requirements, and a mess of other organizational complexities preventing the project team from getting the job done.

Unfortunately, it seems we’ve created an environment in healthcare delivery organizations where perfect conditions must exist if a project is to reach it’s full potential, not to mention within scope, cost, and schedule expectations.

Yet perfect conditions rarely (never?) exist. The list of what-could-go-wrongs is longer than the list of potential project challenges. So it’s time we admitted something: we have a project problem. And it’s a bigger than we think.

Projects are How Organizations Change

The only way to change anything in an organization is through a project.

Yes, a project: a temporary endeavor to produce something beneficial.

David Cleland, hailed as the father of project management, said it well, “Projects provide an organizational focus for conceptualizing, designing, and creating new or improving products, services, and organizational processes.”

Projects are how organizations improve, innovate, and implement anything and everything. There’s no other way.

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So projects have become the de facto way of working for most managers in healthcare delivery organizations. That means projects are happening (and failing?) at all levels of the organization.

Yet as the work has shifted to projects, our ability to implement them hasn’t much improved from already dreadful results: change management initiatives have had a consistent success rate of 30% for decades.

And, in my experience, actually getting better at implementing projects hasn’t recently emerged as a priority in most organizations.

Add it up and it’s no wonder prospective project team members shudder at the idea of adding another responsibility to their project docket. Bad projects are taxing, anxiety-ridden, and full of frustration. It is more work even if the hours in the office don’t seem to change.

Bad Projects are Bad

In the case it isn’t obvious: bad projects are bad.

Change is slowed or doesn’t happen. Resources are wasted. Project teams get frustrated. Careers can occasionally turn on poor outcomes.

A bad project is a project that experiences preventable challenges as a result of factors within an organization’s control. And frankly, most of the factors that lead to challenged projects are within an organization’s control. Unfortunately those factors aren’t usually revealed until a bad project is well into its badness.

In the case it isn’t obvious: bad projects are bad.

Bad projects, just like successful projects, come in an abundance of varieties making bad projects difficult to identify. The thing that makes a bad project a bad project this time, may not be what makes a bad project a bad project next time.

But a bad project does have a feeling. A feeling that something isn’t right. It can be hardly noticeable at first, perhaps brought on by a wasted meeting or missed deadline. The feeling can grow — sleepless nights and dreaded “red light” updates — until it’s obvious to everyone on the project team that this one is nearing disaster.

That feeling, I believe, is caused by the looming failure that arrives with the loss of project momentum.

Project momentum — a fragile and squishy characteristic unmeasurable with project management tools — is the force that relentlessly moves a project toward completion.

Because what’s a project if it’s not speeding toward implementation?

Likely a bad project.

What can we do about it?

Of course some bad projects are bad and still turn out okay. That’s the result of a foggy memory, lowered expectations, dumb luck, or the rescue effort of an individual hero.

Absent heroes — because to be direct, a project should not require a hero for it to be implemented successfully — what can be done?

There’s an easy answer. Truly. But it comes with we-have-work-to-do news: we (us!, individuals and organizations) have to get better at implementing projects.

And I’m not talking about project management. I’m talking about project implementation skills.

Projects are challenging. They require extra work, collaboration, domain expertise, communication(!), critical thinking, situational awareness, problem-solving, faith, support, oversight, planning, preparation, and a whole bunch of other skills, traits, and experience many project leaders haven’t spent sufficient time developing.

Photo by Jack Douglass on Unsplash

It’s tempting, I think, to try and solve the bad project problem with centralized efforts like an enterprise project management office or a One Best Way Edict™.

Neither is a sufficient response.

Even a great project manager outfitted with a sanctioned implementation methodology isn’t enough to wrangle the complexity of a project in a healthcare delivery organization without the full and necessary participation of an entire project team equipped with the ability to make a project happen.

The only way to get better at implementing projects is to learn how to implement them and hone learned skills by implementing more projects.

Which is actually good news, in my opinion, because as we all know healthcare delivery has plenty of opportunities to do better.

Getting Better at Projects Improves Everything Else

Getting better at implementing projects will help our organizations be better at everything else because projects are how organizations improve, innovate, and implement.

Of course, projects will continue to fail because projects happen to fail for a multitude of reasons outside the control of an engaged project team.

But they should not fail because of factors within an organization’s control. That’s a bad project. And bad projects need to be eliminated.

There are real costs to bad projects — not the least of which has made projects a burden to both organizations and individuals, something to be feared and avoided. That’s a real shame because projects are the vehicle to do really great work in making our organizations, communities, and healthcare delivery better for everyone.

Which, you know, is all of us. And the reason we’re here.

I’m scouring the country for people and organizations that have solved the bad project problem and/or are just really good at getting things done. Send me a note if you know someone or an organization that fits the bill.