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Posted: August 19, 2009

Turning the project from hell around

Follow the 80/20 rule

Theresa M. Szczurek

Most of you, unfortunately, have an intimate understanding of what the “project from hell” means. 

These are the projects that do NOT deliver the needed results in the proper timeframe:

  • Delayed delivery
  • Scope creep 
  • Responsible parties do not deliver appropriate solutions on time, on budget
  • Team members are frustrated, perhaps due to the incompetence of other teammates or elements beyond their control
  • The system does not work as expected
  • The client is never happy 

The issues and problems go on and on.

The 80/20 rule may be at work, here: Twenty percent of the projects bring 80 percent of the headaches. 

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from my clients on how to turn the project from hell around.

Find your passion and stick to it
If a potential project is interesting and intriguing, but not consistent with your values and does not leverage your core competencies, i.e., your passion – Say No!
Do a risk/reward assessment
The key is to do a good assessment ahead of time to screen out the most likely problem cases before they turn into nightmares. 

Do a situation analysis
Find out what problems have occurred before or exist now, and ask why. If the risks are high and the reward low – Say No!
Screen for project criteria as well as for the people involved
If the people involved in the project are difficult or suspect—Say No!
Sometimes it is not easy to say no
But it is easier if you can give a reason why an alternative approach would be better.  “Thanks for considering me for xyz project. However, I am booked until next year and know someone who has the experience you need.” 

If you say no to projects that are not a match and are set up for failure, you will be able to say yes to others that are winners. Say no to the 20 percent of projects that bring 80 percent of the headaches.

Align passion with clear purpose
Clarify the project definition. Make sure you have a clear description of the project upfront. 

Agree on the scope of work, detailed requirements and specifications, and success factors.  Only agree to handle those parts of the project you can influence. Make sure project boundaries are clearly set so that parts beyond your control are outside the scope. Get all it in writing. 

Ensure that everyone knows what to expect and by when. Put down in writing what all parties expect. Determine project liaisons and their roles. Clarify how communications will take place and with whom.
Ensure a rigorous process is established for completion of the requirements and make sure the entire team abides by it. Put together and agree on a project schedule, including the amount of time allocated for final test and approval. Demand that leaders for certain segments of a project follow an agreed-upon process.

Specify a test plan – what steps will be taken to ensure that the system is delivering to the requirements, who will be doing the testing, how long is the test period. 

Pursue purpose with a competent team 
Make sure that the proper players, including high-level champions, are involved. Get agreement upfront on what active participation is needed and who will ensure it takes place. What will happen if this participation does not take place? Specify what other resources or people are needed and what budget there is to cover this expense.

Only allow proven, high competent people on the team. Especially if you have not worked with certain members before, interview them carefully to ensure tangible evidence of past performance. Past performance is the best indicator of future performance. Make sure you check references. Dig deep to talk to references from the references.
Notice any red flags. Trust your gut and your head. Take action to correct problems when they are small so they don’t get bigger.

Have a tight contract and put in escalating penalties for not meeting budget and deadlines.

Assess progress
Especially with a new project and team, you need to constantly be monitoring results and readjusting.  Keep track of what progress has been made and what has not been made. Issue regular status reports to keep all parties informed – communicate, communicate, communicate. Make mid-course corrections along the way.  Smile, believe, and allow the project to flow.

How do you avoid hell and stay in heaven?
Say no to certain projects, no to working with incompetent players, and say yes to important project management processes.

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Theresa M. Szczurek, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Radish Systems, is a serial technology entrepreneur. The story of her last start-up, which sold for more than $40 million in less than six years, is included, along with her strategies for success, in the Amazon-bestseller Pursuit of Passionate Purpose: Success Strategies for a Rewarding Personal and Business Life., and @TheresaSzczurek on twitter.

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