Five Things Not To Do When Launching A Project

Redundant, parallel projects being run in separate departments.

Endless delays and missed deadlines because of day-to-day priorities.

Poorly run meetings where everyone has lost the plot.

Failing to deliver on the real objective of the project because people are caught up in completing the tasks.

Right now, one or more of these things is probably true in a cross-functional project near you…

Let’s start with what we mean by a project:

A project is a finite effort (meaning it has a start and an end) to solve a specific problem. Once it is complete, the intention is that the solution becomes part of how we work in the future, thus eliminating the need for an additional project until a new problem arises.

Well-designed projects have a few additional features:

  • They solve a problem which is not already being tackled elsewhere in the business
  • They take a fresh approach to solving the problem
  • They engage the right combination of skills, experience and perspective to deliver a solution
  • They hold people accountable for results rather than just get launched and forgotten

Projects are a mainstay of how organizations improve performance for the long-term. They are also one of the primary forums for cross-functional collaboration, making them a great laboratory to understand how things can go so poorly so easily.

Here are 5 common mistakes we have observed in project design:

1. Being inclusive just because

The best size for a cross-functional project team is typically between six to eight individuals. More than that and you begin to incur a lot of coordination costs. Too often, however, team size grows out of control because of the need for representation of various interests. Replace oversized teams with methodical stakeholder management so that the core working team remains at a manageable size.

2. Duplicating effort in another department

Every project should start with the question, “Is this problem already being tackled somewhere else?” Time and again we see redundant work occurring in siloes because no one bothered to look around before launching the effort. We’ve even seen cases where two competing efforts had the same executive sponsor, but she hadn’t connected the dots. If you do find a similar efforts, team up or leverage its outcomes rather than starting over.

3. Confusing activity with outcomes

Too often, teams give themselves credit for progress because they have taken action even when they are no closer to the objective of the project. If you are using an initiative dashboard, hold a high standard for what it means to be “on track” so that crossing items off a list doesn’t lull your team into a false sense of progress.

4. Applying the same level of rigor every time

One of the ways in which project scope can expand dramatically is through the level of effort needed at the beginning to understand the current situation. While it is always a best practice to start from the customer’s perspective, every project does not need a large scale diagnostic survey or an interview process that includes 40 people. Often, a few people in a room asking the 5 Whys can get to a root cause without having to make an ask of internal and external stakeholders. If a survey is needed, check to see if there might already be an available dataset, and be sure to leverage best practice in both the design and analysis phases. We’ve seen many poorly constructed surveys that consume a lot of energy but produce minimal insight.

5. Training as a cure-all

While individual skill-building is often required to sustain the improvements made through the work of an initiative, training does not always address the real issue. For example, we commonly encounter functions looking to gain more of a seat at the table in cross-functional decision-making. One frequent solution proposed is to “train the function on what we do and why it matters.” Unfortunately, lack of influence is rarely a “knowing” gap. While training may be part of a broader solution, resist the urge to hand the problem off to L&D.

Cross-functional projects are here to stay. Steer clear of these common mistakes and fast track your team to a success story rather than a tale of woe.