Why Do Many Projects Fail? Delayed Arguments

April 5, 2017

One of the biggest reasons projects fail is that disagreements happen too late and the project manager gets stuck in the middle.

Bob McGannon worked as a project manager for 25 years, with 18 of those at IBM. In that time, he managed projects of all sizes and scopes, witnessing both successes and failures.

So what has he seen as the biggest reason projects fail? Unsurprisingly, the biggest reason projects fail is poor communication by the project manager, he said. But a very specific form of poor communication – when the project manager doesn’t quickly settle disagreements between two stakeholders, to the point the project manager gets in the middle of it.

“When elephants fight, it's the grass that gets damaged,” McGannon said in his LinkedIn Learning course, Insights from a Project Manager. “Now, if you take a look at the project example that I just talked about where it's an argument (between two stakeholders), that difference in the perspective on the project should have been resolved a long time ago.”

“I view those two stakeholders as elephants and, if I'm a project manager and I say, hang on, I see a difference here,” he continued. “One of you wants to go east and the other wants to go north. Please give me a direction. By doing this you're getting the elephants to fight without being the grass. However, if you decide you're just going to handle this and you go down the project pathway and you start to do things and those stakeholders start to criticize what it is you're doing, you're the grass.”

How to not be the “grass”

McGannon’s point is that a great project manager picks up on when two stakeholders have different opinions about how the project should unfold. Before moving forward, the project manager should have the two stakeholders determine where they want the project to go. Or, if need be, the project manager should make the decision, but also clearly communicate why they made the decision to both stakeholders.

By doing that, you might have some hurt feelings in the moment. But, you’ve put the issue to rest and you can move forward without becoming the proverbial grass, McGannon said.

Think about it this way. Say you are building a house for a husband and a wife, and they can’t agree on what they want in their kitchen.

If you as the construction manager go forward without settling the disagreement and start building the kitchen, both the husband and the wife will start criticizing your decisions. In other words, you’ll become the grass, because you didn’t let the argument happen sooner.

Instead, if you tell the husband and wife to come to a decision, and only then you’ll build the kitchen, they’ll only fight among themselves. And when they make a decision, you can move forward, unscathed.

Examples like this happen time and time again in business, except instead of a husband and wife it’s two stakeholders with different views of the project. You, as a project manager, need to have those stakeholders come to an agreement before you start executing, or else you’ll get stuck in the middle.

“The whole idea is to surface those things early,” McGannon said in his course. “Don't think they're going to work their way out. A lot of projects fail because the major stakeholders are not aligned on what the project's going to do, what it's going to achieve and how it fits in the priority of the business they're working in.”

The point is, the quicker these arguments are settled, the quicker everyone can move on. But, if they linger, they’ll slowly kill the project and put you at the center of everyone’s antipathy. 

Want to become a better project manager? Check out McGannon's full LinkedIn Learning course, Insights from a Project Manager, today!