This is why projects don’t finish on time

Simon Tratnik
  • 3
    min read
  • Simon Tratnik
    Jan 26, 2023

Do you feel like projects always drag on longer than expected? You’re probably right. 

An extensive survey by the Project Management Institute, with 3950 respondents from a range of organization sizes and industries, showed that as little as 50% of projects actually finish on time. Of course, this is directly linked to the success of the project. A further 40% completely fail to accomplish their goal

In this article, we’ll explore the three biggest factors that lead to project delays and failures, and how to complete projects on time - six key questions every Product Leader should ask. 

Team is struggling with the alignment at the very beginning.

Three reasons why projects don’t finish on time

Complex organizations have complex problems, but most of them have the following common roots:

1. Unclear or changing goals

We’ve all been to one of those meetings where everyone leaves with a completely different conclusions, and no clear next steps. This leaves the project susceptible to scope creep or even screeching direction changes. Without a common roadmap to refer to, everyone is freewheeling with no direction. Assumptions and cognitive bias can easily set the project off course, making accomplishing a goal almost impossible. 

And this is never good news for project leaders - a recent study by PWC cites scope changes as the number one reason for project failure.  

2. Poor communication

Many promising projects are derailed because teams aren’t speaking the same language. When there are no clear systems or norms for sharing ideas and discussing problems without bias, even the smallest disagreement turns into an endless discussion loop and inevitable project delays.

3. Internal politics

Outdated hierarchical systems hinder projects in countless ways. 

When the senior person in the room is always allowed to ‘win’ the argument, even though there’s no factual basis. When managers don’t take the time to check in with their teams on their day to day progress and findings. Or, perhaps worse, sporadic micromanaging - when leaders time suck by focusing on non-priority tasks, while overlooking more significant issues. 

All result in precious time wasted on the wrong path, meaning major reworking - or even starting from scratch - too late in the game. 

Poor communication and internal politics can hinder the team's focus and energy during the entire process. Instead they should fully focus at the kickstart of a project and answer all of the questions.

How to complete projects on time – 6 essential questions to ask 

If you’ve been in the product world for a while, none of these situations are new to you. The good news is, they can be not only minimized, but avoided completely.

How? By getting the right start. 

The truth is, many common project setbacks and delays can be prevented by simply taking the time to establish clear goals, processes and hard facts right from the beginning.

Let's face it, it's all too easy to get bogged down in the details and lose sight of the big picture. This is particularly true when new team members join a project mid-stream and start asking key questions that should have been answered at the outset.

But here's the good news:

By taking a strategic approach to the initial stages of a project, you can minimize these pitfalls and set your team up for success. It all starts with having a clear understanding of the goal posts and a process that is rooted in hard facts and data.

By taking the time to answer a few essential questions conclusively before you begin, and ensuring that everyone on the team is aligned, you can minimize the chances of delays and setbacks, and make the deadline a safe bet.

Product development projects always delay or miss deadline because teams don't bother to answer critical questions at the beginning of the process. Decisions maker is not present at the very start but at the end which makes it tuff for a team when they are asked to change everything they did in the 6 months without getting the valuable direction or approval from the very start.

Here’s our list of 6 essential questions that you must answer conclusively before launching any project and no ‘tbd’s allowed: 

  • Do we have a concrete, customer-based vision?
    No project should be based purely on business and IT assessment, without a foundation in proven customer needs and desires. Get clear on how you’re incorporating user testing.
  • What is a realistic long term goal for this project?
    Take a practical look through the lenses of technical feasibility and financial viability, as well as exploring user needs. 
  • What are the critical business and product questions that needs to be answered before starting product development?
    In other words, carefully reviewing major hurdles that could jeopardize the project, and deciding if/how they can be worked around.
  • Do teams have real-world data to rely on?
    If they’re working based on endless internal discussions, the project is unlikely to cross the finishing line. Every decision should be traceable to hard evidence.
  • Who is the decision maker?
    Define how and when they’ll be present during the whole project, rather than having them drop in on the end result with no context.
  • What are the decisions to be made and next steps to follow? Who is responsible for each?
    Revisit these questions at the beginning and end of every meeting or team work session. 

Safe to say that many of these points are not easy to answer using traditional processes. That’s where Design Thinking comes in. 

Whether equipping your key players with agile problem solving skills, or hiring an external facilitator to navigate the initial stage of product ideation and development, investing in transformation through design is a surefire way to ensure projects finish on time, and maximize success rates. 

Starting on the right foot sets up your project for success.

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