Why do so many major projects get into trouble—running late and over-budget and not delivering in line with original expectations?

Elaborate reasons are often put forward, but the answer is often quite simply that the people involved don’t work together properly. That may seem a wild accusation, but consider this: A range of recognisable factors push the participants apart, even before we add in the natural human frailties to which we are all prone.

The reason projects get into trouble

There’s no getting away from it.

Large, complex projects are difficult. Usually, nothing quite the same has been done before, and even if it has, the context has changed, regulations are tighter, the political backdrop has a different complexion, and raw material and labour costs have changed, all shifting the trade-offs which determine the optimal design and so on. And even if everything else is the same, the people are different.

Moreover. Major projects frequently start off under a “conspiracy of optimism,” in which customer and contractor unknowingly or even knowingly collude in a pretence that the project can be achieved for a lower budget and in a shorter time than turns out to be the case. That way there’s a better chance of the project being approved and less likely of project trouble. Once reality dawns, the only sensible option is to press on—the original optimists now being elsewhere.

Worse, bitter competitive tendering battles push contractors to take an optimistic view of their estimates and plan to re-establish their profit margins on the changes they know will inevitably come when the work gets underway. Customer organisations have a very significant challenge in establishing their requirements upfront, and in keeping them stable as circumstances change and experience is gained. So change is inevitable.

Difficulties with customer dependencies

Areas of work where cost is unpredictable are often excluded from the scope of the contract. Customers say something like: “We’ll take responsibility for that,” often without fully understanding the obligations they are taking on. Thereby putting themselves on the critical path of the programme, with hard deadlines to meet for the provision of information and physical preparation work. Often with no real experience of what it’s like to manage an organisation to deliver on “dependencies” in that way, and often in a culture where organising around a task rather than role is quite alien.

It’s a wise customer which realises that its obligations to its supplier have to be taken just as seriously as the supplier’s responsibilities to the customer. More often, the client’s position of relative power as the buyer blinds its people to the need to deliver too.

Customers often expect that some of the project work will be delivered by staff who have other day-to-day responsibilities. Unfortunately, these individuals can rarely give adequate priority to the project work, causing great strain to the programme and sometimes leaving critical gaps in the knowledge available.

Difficulties with resources

Contractors usually mess up in some way too. When supply and demand for resources, it has to be balanced in terms of both numbers and skills, the right people are almost never available to a project when they need to be. The end result: Technical mistakes get made and the scheduling of the work gets out of shape, with tasks proceeding in an order which is out of step with the best approach to managing uncertainties on the project. Pressure for visible progress means that decisions get made out of proper sequence.

Problems with coherence

Customer and contractor organisations often have difficulty interacting with each other in a coherent way. The influence of multiple stakeholders means that customer organisations have internal differences of opinion on issues raised by the contractor. Unless there is a strong programme management capability to reconcile these internal debates and break down organisational “silos,” the project can be paralysed. The contractor too may not be of one mind.

Lack of authority

Customers rightly delegate a considerable amount of authority to contractors, intending them to take a rounded responsibility for delivery. However, because they still want to retain enough authority to make sure they have ultimate control, it’s very easy to end up in the situation where neither the customer nor the contractor has enough authority to solve an issue.

Personal behaviours

At the individual level, there are a number of traits which can stop people working together properly:-

  • Seeking personal advancement ahead of shared success
  • Competing with peers as reward structures dictate
  • Settling old scores
  • Focusing more on being able to blame the other side, or other people in general, if things go wrong than on achieving success in the first place
  • Lacking the skills to work in a collaborative manner
  • Failing to listen effectively
  • Retreating into defensive behaviour when work is subject to review and criticism
  • Avoiding responsibility and doing nothing because it’s perceived as safer
  • Expressing agreement in meetings and then doing something different outside
  • Being swayed by special interest groups
  • Failing to follow through on actions

All these individual behaviours are likely to compound the problems which cause the project to g

The end result

A programme or project in trouble with a fault on both sides and extreme difficulty in getting back on track. Both parties are in the position where they’ve made some mistakes and feel the other side has let them down in other ways—a situation in which it is very difficult for either side to argue for the changes they know their partner needs to make for the project to be successful, or even to see the whole situation objectively.

Even if the underlying reasons for problems lie more on one side than the other, everybody suffers.

Some answers

Just being alive to potential causes of problems helps and, of course, much of the solution is to implement programme and project management techniques properly and that certainly is an essential step.

It may not be enough though.

Independent facilitation can be very effective

When relationships become strained on major projects, or even before they do, customers and suppliers might do well to involve a trusted and independent third party. Such a person can help the participants understand the other side’s perspective, learn from each other and resolve their issues in a carefully orchestrated process drawing on specialist expertise in helping disparate groups collaborate.

On major projects, the leading players will be individuals with great experience and expertise, but they can’t be expected to have the same skills in facilitating collaboration. They simply don’t have the training and they’re not working in this manner every day. And anyway, it’s virtually impossible to facilitate a process from the position of an interested party.

Far from being an admission of failure, involving a skilful “third-sider” to help get a programme on track and keep it there is an enlightened thing to do, worth every penny of the investment required. Often things can be said to participants on either side which they would never feel they could say to each other or even to their own people. The trusted third party will also develop an accurate, objective perspective on the whole situation, able to prompt a solution to an issue in one domain which lies in another domain.

There’s a widespread misconception that we can’t do much about individuals’ people skills and their interpersonal behaviour. That simply isn’t true. With the right approach, it’s comparatively easy to learn or teach more resourceful ways of relating to other people. The reality is there are many accessible techniques available, which for the most part, we’re not making enough use of.

Project management people are often surprised at the depth of insight which is possible. Suddenly they can see with a clarity which wasn’t available before—an effect like turning on the lights. However, sustained behaviour change requires repetition of the learning experience over a period of weeks and months to overcome the well-documented tendency to rapidly forget things we have only been exposed to once.

The takeaway then is to treat relating to other people as a skill to develop and study just like any other competence.

With some professional attention to the intangible factors in people working together effectively, major projects that get into trouble are less likely to, whether they involve a customer-contractor relationship or something more internal.

About Guest Contributor

David Fraser, PhD, is an author, speaker, and coach on change, leadership, and professional relationships. He is an engineer and programme director by background.

David is a leading authority on relationship skills in professional and personal life and author of the well-regarded and award-winning book Relationship Mastery: A Business Professional’s Guide. He is an international speaker with a senior professional background and deep insight into the human side of life gathered from a wealth of sources.