15 July 2009

Identifying the Projects That Are Most Likely to Fail

If you are in the same situation as many of the people I consult to you are responsible for a portfolio of projects, and are having to spend too much time checking on how these projects are performing. When my clients are in this type of situation, I recommend that they get out of this trap by focusing their attention on the projects that are most likely to fail, and spending less time on the projects that are likely to go well.

How can you know which projects are most likely to get into trouble? While my previous blog-entry suggested Eight Signs, these are signals that are visible after a project has started. What is required is a method for to identify these projects before they start. Luckily; in my experience project failure is mainly driven by project-complexity. Therefore, if we can objectively measure the complexity of your projects you can rank your projects on the likelihood of each project getting into problems, and can prioritize your time accordingly. How do we know which projects are the most complex? Again, this can be done fairly easily by understanding the complexity drivers for projects, and scoring each project on these dimensions.

Based on my 20 years of experience, I find that project complexity can be measured on two main dimensions. These are a) internal complexity, and b) external complexity. Internal complexity is based on issues related to the way that the team members need to interact, and the type of work that they need to do. External complexity, on the other hand, is driven by the overall environment in which the project needs to work. For each of these two dimensions, I have defines four key complexity-drivers, and the higher the score on each driver (using a scale from 1-5) the more complex the project is.

The internal complexity of a project is driven by:
1) The distance of the work to be carried out by the project to the day-to-day activities of its members
2) The organizational distance between the units where the project participants come from
3) The level of sophistication required in the data collection and analysis to be carried out by the team
4) The level of the "out of the box" thinking required for developing optimal conclusions

External complexity is driven by:
1) The level of pressure from management for achieving concrete and challenging results
2) Openness of project goals to interpretation and level of political elements in goal definition
3) Level of expected uncomfortableness to project participants resulting from project results
4) Required level of communication to various stakeholders for getting the necessary buy-in for results

We can use the scores on each of these dimensions to determine the overall complexity of the project. A project that scores higher than fourteen on each dimension is a complex political project, and should be followed up very closely. If you focus your attention on the complex political projects in your portfolio, you are sure to increase the overall success rate of your projects, as the other, less complex projects are much less likely to experience problems. Carrying out this prioritization process has helped many of my clients prioritize their overall work, and has also helped make individual projects more successful by focusing project activities on crucial issues.

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