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Why major projects fail... and how you can ensure they succeed

Breakthrough PerfomanceIn 2007 the England team almost crashed out of the Rugby World Cup in the very first round with a 36-0 drubbing by South Africa. There was disagreement on tactics, friction between senior players and coaches, and “chaos and confusion” in the camp. 

But in a series of unprecedented meetings, players and coaches thrashed out their differences, agreeing a consistent way forward that took them right through to the nail-biting final, where they narrowly lost to South Africa. 

You will rarely see a clearer demonstration of the absence, and the impact, of a united leadership.

A few years ago I was involved in a strategic programme for a very large retailer. The objective was to change the way they worked with their most important suppliers; to move from short-term aggressive cost reduction, to a more collaborative approach to driving sustainable differentiation and growth.

The senior team had a spectrum of views: some were Doves, others were Hawks. Plus, the project took place against the backdrop of changing economic circumstances. So, depending on which voices attended which meetings, and how the previous week's trading had gone, the project team got different, often conflicting steers. And while the initiative did deliver some gains, it failed in its ambition to fundamentally change the way people behaved.

Since then, I've worked on, initiated and led many strategic projects, and in every case, the success of the project has been in direct proportion to the alignment and commitment of the leadership team.

In your organisation, there will probably be between 2 and 20 strategic initiatives under way right now. So ask yourself:

  1. How many of the project managers are getting absolutely consistent views from each of the members of the leadership team?

  2. What portion of the leadership team could stand up right now in front of the organisation and not only explain, but evangelise about each of the initiatives?

  3. If you asked each member of your team to articulate the most important objective of each initiative, how closely would they match?

If the answer to any of the above is significantly less than 100%, you are at serious risk of failing to deliver your strategy, and these are the steps you need to take:

1. Champion Clarity
A good project leader will strive for clarity and consensus, but as a business leader, it is absolutely your job to make sure they get that clarity. Ask “so what is the steer we are giving here?”; “are we still saying the same thing, or are we changing the brief?”; “what is the consistent message we want to send?”; “what should we all be saying to our teams?”. The clearer and more consistent you are as a team about what you want, the more likely you are to get it.

2. Draw out Disagreement
Silence is rarely assent, usually it's disengagement. Conversely, disagreement is good – it shows passion and engagement, so make a point of testing understanding. Force the debate, and when it happens, task the warring parties to take it off-line and to come back with a consensus view. If you know disagreement is likely, prepare for it – get a good facilitator in and structure a session to tackle it head on.

3. Everyone is Accountable
Make sure the whole leadership team feel accountable for the outcomes of strategic projects. Do each of them know what they need to do to help achieve the goal? If one is off track, are they all looking at how they can step in to get it back on? Are any of them holding back on resource to hit departmental targets instead? In which case, how do you make sure those discussions get resolved?

Bottom Line:
The Rugby World Cup commentators will tell you that “the power of the forwards determines who wins, the skill of backs determines by how much”. Likewise in strategic projects, the drive and commitment of the leadership team determines whether the initiative will succeed, the skill of the project team determines by how much. If you're serious about delivering your strategy, all of your senior team must be shoulder to shoulder, binding together, and pushing as one. If not, I guarantee you'll be going home in the first round.

For the seven steps to guaranteed success click here.

To understand why customer services initiatives fail click here.

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