Project teams that don’t follow a formalized process often face a host of issues, many of which are interrelated. And while each of the problems that are typically encountered can significantly hamper the team’s ability to successfully execute their projects, the collective havoc they wreak on the project office is greater than the sum of their parts.
Understanding where and how the lack of a formal process causes a project team’s efforts to break down is helpful in determining where opportunities exist to improve the approach being used. Regardless of the industry, the organization’s size, the team’s experience level, or the complexity of the project, the issues generally fall into four categories.
Managing timeframes is a primary problem in project offices that opt not to follow a formal process. Very frequently, the team discovers that tasks take longer than expected. Because there is insufficient structure applied during the early planning stages, estimates made for the timing and duration of many project activities are inaccurate or incomplete.
Each task that exceeds its expected timeframe then becomes a problem to be solved while also likely causing following tasks to be delayed or otherwise impacted. This may lead to even greater delays if business partners, such as supporting departments or outside vendors, are unable to accommodate delays within their own schedules and must further postpone activities until the necessary resources are available.
The final result of these myriad delays is that projects are often late. Everything from manufacturing schedules to regulatory filings could be impacted as a consequence. In addition, the project office’s internal resources are tied up longer than expected as the project is finally wrapped up. This may build delays or unrealistic time estimates into the next project on the schedule. The cycle is then repeated, with the project team falling increasingly behind and project results being negatively affected in the long run.
Informal processes have the potential to trigger a number of failures around budgeting activities. Without a methodology that puts an emphasis on careful cost planning and controls, expenditures are often underestimated. In an effort to hurry through the budget process or without sufficient resources to gather detailed bids, budget figures may be built upon data that is out of date or incomplete. This inserts errors into the current project’s budget and also increases the chance that the same mistakes will be repeated on future projects.
Additional budget impacts may come in the form of costs that must be incurred to prevent a project from being late. This could run from rather small expenditures associated with rush shipping to exorbitant costs necessary to keep critical-path project activities on track, such as labor costs to hire additional personnel or to contract with a more expensive vendor. Hefty financial penalties may also be assessed if delays in a project cause the organization to fall short of its legal or regulatory obligations.
As the team racks up expenses beyond its original budget, the organization is likely to shortchange other areas, including future projects that are still in the pipeline. The leadership group may decide to “borrow” funding from the next project—a scenario that commonly puts the new project into financial trouble before it even begins—or they may pull funding entirely, effectively canceling one or more future projects. The team could also find itself with reduced budget levels; potentially leading to cuts in staffing or other operational line items.
Quality almost always becomes a victim when the lack of a formalized approach causes a project to run over time or over budget. In order to deliver results in the agreed-up timeframe, the quality of the project’s objectives may be reduced to save in any number of ways. Stakeholder communications are sometimes overlooked as the project phases hurtle along disjointedly, leaving executives, sponsors, and end users in the dark on the project’s status and latest developments. The external guidance sought by the project team might be scaled back, for example, if experts aren’t available on the abbreviated timeframe that results from a poorly managed schedule. A longer-lead piece of equipment designed to work with emerging technologies may be sacrificed in favor of a solution that can be installed more quickly but which meets only today’s needs.
Funding concerns can also cause quality to be reduced. Lesser-quality materials may be chosen for a project as a way to save money. If funding constraints are a problem, the organization might not be able to secure the best-qualified vendors or attract the most experienced job candidates. Longer-range considerations may also come into play, with organizations reducing the resources available to the project team, such as training opportunities and even membership in industry and trade associations.
The stress factor
The multitude of problems caused by the use of an informal process is sure to have a cumulative effect on the project team, resulting in a high level of stress. It may manifest in several ways, all of which are detrimental to the team’s long-term success. The first concern often crops up tied to accountability—already a primary concern for employees—which becomes a major stressor when a project is running late. This is especially true in the case of projects that have a high degree of visibility or which are strategically important to the organization.
As the problems brought on by the lack of a formalized process continue to mount, workers sometimes resort to finger pointing, shifting stress from themselves to others in the group without accomplishing anything of value. They may hide information, often to avoid alerting others in the group to the fact that the funding situation is bleak or that critical tasks are past due. These behaviors exacerbate the existing problems, since other team members will continue to spend and plan based on what are, in the end, erroneous assumptions about how the project is progressing.
The simple stress of working crazy hours in an attempt to catch up on a project that is running late can be grating and a tremendous drain on workers. This confluence of ongoing stress factors eventually leads to sagging performance. Not only does this affect the morale of the project team, it may also prompt the organization to terminate employees in an effort to halt the problem. It’s an additional stress on those who are left, which can now add concerns about losing their jobs to their existing worry load.
There is a solution
Fortunately, organizations can avoid these pitfalls by following a formalized process. It’s a solution that doesn’t have to be cumbersome or expensive, and it offers significant rewards on many fronts.
One factor that contributes to the power of a strong, formal project methodology is the control process, which is crucial to properly managing budget and scheduling issues. Well-implemented controls provide project members a way to spot potential issues with expenditure levels, resource allocations, task durations and dependencies, and the timeframes for project activities. By identifying concerns early, the team can then develop and deploy workable resolutions, sidestepping further failures.
With activities under the appropriate level of control, team members are able to focus on executing projects instead of spending their time fixing problems and worrying which new emergency is lurking around the corner. Communication—not just within the project team but also across its entire stakeholder portfolio—is improved, with people sharing information more openly and being more willing to dive into ways to solve difficult issues.
Budget challenges are also addressed more effectively when the early planning stages are properly structured and controlled. Any necessary adjustments can be made before a problem occurs, thus avoiding overages. Additional opportunities for savings can also be more quickly identified and leveraged. As the team exercises greater control over how its limited dollars are used, they will also be able to apply the most current market data to the next project’s budget estimates.
Applying a formal process gives project teams a way to improve results in the near term while also setting the stage for repeated success across future projects. A trained team that is well versed in a formal, proven process will be able to head off many of the problems outlined above before they can negatively impact activities.