FIVE MAJOR INTERACTION-BASED CAUSES OF PROJECT FAILURE Number One: Unclear Definition

There are several schools of thought among project professionals on what the phrase ‘initial project definition‘ means.  Everyone agrees that the project outcome and deliverables must be defined, as a minimum.  Some feel it is important to define the delivery schedule and an estimated budget before approval is sought.  Others go the distance and outline a comprehensive plan, in addition to budgets and outcomes before deciding a “go or no go” decision can be reached.

Your ability to develop a good relationship with your client during early discussions and through the Diagnosis stage will determine how much influence you will have in recommending the depth of information required during definition.  If you have used the Diagnosis stage to establish yourself and the team as technical experts and top service performers, your client may simply require a clear definition of the solution to proceed.  If your rapport with the client is shallow and they have not developed confidence in your team, they may require a lot more up-front information.

The more information you must compile before approval, the more resources you may be wasting.  A tight, clear, accurate definition of the best solution for the client, based on a well-researched diagnosis, should be an adequate basis for approval of the project.  It should also be enough information to make an expeditious decision to pull the plug on an ill-conceived project before the use of people and resources start running up costs.

If you have established a good relationship in the Diagnosis stage, the definition stage offers an excellent opportunity to solidify it.  Your proposal of a tight and focused definition should convey to the client that you are interested in meeting their exact needs and minimizing waste.  On the contrary, unclear definition of the solution can lead to missed deadlines, budget over runs, stakeholder resistance, and a number of other problems, each leading to customer dissatisfaction.

In addition to being a pivotal element of project success, a clear definition can set a valuable precedent on how the client relationship will be managed and the project will be conducted.  If the definition is hurried, poorly worded, or otherwise misses the mark, the technical and service performance on subsequent tasks may reflect this initial weak execution.

Typical Causes of Unclear Definitions:

  • The client is not clear on what their real need actually is (a solid diagnosis could be instrumental in clearing this up).

For example, you are called in to stop a slide in profit margins for a manufacturer of resin-based patio furniture.  The management feels a switch to more contemporary designs is the solution.  What they haven’t explored are solutions for the real need: to stop eroding profits.  Are raw material costs too high – should they switch suppliers?  Are inventories too large, adding to overhead?  Are transportation costs eating into margins at an inflated rate?  In other words, their need may have a much simpler solution than redesigning their entire line.

  • The client is not willing to take the time to describe the situation (they may take the stance that your job as solution provider is to discover their needs without their participation).

For example, you are reputed to be the best ad campaign consultant in the East.  An importing firm calls you in to replicate their success in England with a line of tea biscuits, in New England.  They have no interest in retracing their steps or giving you time to diagnose the situation.  Your expertise is what they are buying and they expect to move forward quickly.  Do you think a successful campaign can be launched without the benefit of a well-defined solution?

  • You and/or the client assume that the solution is clear and understood.

For example, you are a trade show planner for a Software trade show that takes place every year in a major convention hall downtown.  The past two years have seen reduced booth reservations through the fall, until you announce a price reduction and free amenities.  This year the shortfall in reservations is the largest ever.  You and the client feel it simply requires deeper discounts and better giveaways – the same as every other year.  What you and the client have overlooked are an increase in similar shows in the area, the increase in e-buying for software, and the fact that fuel, lodging, and parking prices have doubled in the last 5 years.  Will discounts be the solution?

  • The client is uncomfortable disclosing all the details for fear of breeching confidentiality barriers.

For example, you are put in charge of implementing a complete backroom payroll administration system for a successful privately held construction company.  The CFO of the company refuses to release records on compensation history or current packages for principles and Board members.  Without this information you cannot fully define the best accounting practices for the client, but they insist the project move forward anyway.  Can you define a complete solution for the client?

Preventive Strategies:

  • Schedule a meeting to close out the Diagnosis stage (including incorporation of stakeholder comments), and dedicate a segment of the meeting to confirm the needs of the client prior to initiating the Definition stage.
    • Use the First Law of Service to assess the client’s satisfaction with the diagnosis.
    • Seek input and clarification on the needs you have documented from all stakeholders.
    • Explore the client’s preferences around proposal scope and sequence for presentation of the definition.
  • Use an informal event to initiate the Diagnosis and Definition stages (e.g., lunch, dinner, etc.).  This may help the client to feel more comfortable about discussing the issues in question.
    • Discuss protocol around confidentiality. Agree to sign non-disclosure statements to make the client comfortable.
    • Apply Active Listening techniques to acquire information
    • Discuss how you can access other resources in the client organization
  • Develop confidence in the Client that your methodology assures their satisfaction by proactively addressing issues that may negatively impact the project.
    • Describe your approach for testing assumptions
    • Explain the benefits of risk management
  • Challenge the assumptions that you and/or the client have regarding the definition of the solution.
    • Seek agreement on the scope and depth of the definition.
    • Probe for any insecurity on the client’s behalf regarding competence of team members.
    • Present a list of assumptions you have made regarding the client’s expectations, ability to secure necessary resources, time available, etc.

Contingent Strategies:

  • If the client is non-participatory, establish a process for the client to accept and approve (sign-off on) the definition that you have developed with the information you could gather. Include a detailed list of all questions and untested assumptions.
  • Submit a clear and comprehensive proposal for the definition. This will facilitate approval as well as serve as a foundation document should subsequent disagreements or challenges to the definition materialize.
  • Complete a Decision Matrix. It’ll be very useful if any disputes or misunderstandings develop around the definition.

Due diligence pays off.  Doing the homework required to produce an accurate diagnosis dovetails with the preparation of a clear and comprehensive definition of the best solution for the client.  And remember, your homework is not limited to data gathering and technical research.  You must be constantly promoting close communication, building confidence, and establishing a relationship based on teamwork and mutual support.  The best evidence of great service performance at this juncture is accurate reflection of the client’s needs in preparation of the clearest, most comprehensive definition possible.

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