Projects Fail When People Don't Know Where They Going - PM 360 Consulting
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Projects Fail When People Don’t Know Where They Going

Projects Fail When People Don’t Know Where They Going


Projects Fail When People Don’t Know Where They Going

The statistics on strategy execution are dismal:

59% of middle managers fail at resolving conflicts in corporate strategy.
45% of middle managers cannot name one of the top five corporate goals.
64% of cross department/functional issues are poorly resolved.
And as you could expect from this:

53% of companies cannot react timely to new opportunities.


You do not need to be a rocket scientist to know that this trajectory is not going to launch most companies’ strategic plans successfully. In fact, these data might make you feel that middle management would be better suited as test dummies for the next generation of manned space-vehicle. Granted, the data show there is a dearth of leadership in middle management, but executive tier has a very culpable hand.

What This Tells Us

These data are the inital findings of Donald Sull,et al, from interviewing hundreds of companies to determine the problem in executing on strategy. I found the same issues while doing reserach for my latest book on the gap inhibiting companies from executing strategy. The data support my premise that most organizations have gaps resulting in:

An absence of a “common understanding,”
Goal-project misalignment
Lackluster leadership
Ineffective governance
Disengaged executive sponsors
Poor change management

The only gap Sull’s data does not support directly is poor change management, but when people do not know the corporate goals, it would be of no surprise that changes to achieve those goals rarely stick.

The pie charts ot the right break the data down further. By looking at the first four pie charts, you can get a better picture of these data and it should be clear that the executives seem to be shirking their fiduciary responsibilities. This leads to the last conclusion of Sull’s team:

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64% of Companies Address Employee Performance Issues Poorly

Once the problem is seen, whether the breakdown is with executives or middle managers, little is done about it. In fact, when Sull and his team took a closer look at the data the entire concept of collaboration and getting others to do the right things is lost in their reviews. They discovered individual actions are what affect most employee performance reports; collaboration generally has little weight. In more personal terms, as long as your boss can see that you got something done, it matters little what the team did.

No Wonder So Many Projects Struggle
This goes to the heart of what causes project failure. It transcends initiative size, an organization’s experience, and project complexity. How can a project achieve company goals if neither project managers nor their bosses know what those goals are? The CEO, or an executive team, can set the goals but there needs to be accountability for translating the goals into executable projects. Furthermore, as businesses try to adapt to business environment changes, projects have to change at the same pace. These changes need to be marshalled down the “project execution stack” and converted into new directions for every project—even if that means canceling a project or two. If the middle-management tier does not know the direction or cannot communicate it, no one can make the tough decisions required. The result is projects will always struggle to be successful.

Some companies use executive sponsors to shepherd projects down this road. This can be a great option for projects. However, even sponsors struggle in an environment with poor communication and accountability. Engaged executive sponsors can help address project issues, but they do little to solve the plight of functional and operational managers. Everyone in the organization has to have a clear picture of the company’s goals. The only way to solve the problem is with real leaders running the company who recruit leaders to work on their teams—leaders who make tough decisions. The senior executives need to be decisive and focused and foster those and other leadership traits throughout the company.

The Solution

In my research, it is clear. The issue is bigger than just saying we need better communication. It is a basic as using a common vernacular. Executives and project team members speak different languages. Executives talk about execution, yet troops talk about implementation; executives want value delivered from a project, yet they use the project metrics of scope, schedule, and budget. The issues are seen in our actions: executive sponsors need to be engaged in the company’s projects, yet they are too busy working on “higher priority” issues. If there are so many higher priority problems than the ones our projects are projects addressing, then our projects must be addressing the wrong problems. 

Executives need to create and communicate clean concise direction. They need to engage their lieutenants in distributing those goals and spearheading the detailed plans to implement them. Repeatedly, we have seen that distributed leadership is more effective at driving our businesses. Before that can happen, though, senior executives need to become leaders that work on hiring the right people, cultivating employees, and creating a culture of leadership. A culture where a common understanding of the corporate direction is a way of life.

Learn More

Learn more about filling the gaps in your organization in my latest book,FillingExecution Gaps. It covers the six gaps that cause projects to failan absence of “common understanding,” goal-project misalignment, lackluster leadership, ineffective governance, disengaged executive sponsors, and poor change management. 

Filling Execution Gaps addresses the sources of these gaps, and how to fill them. Without any one of these important functions, projects fail. Without change management, adoption suffers. Without common understanding, there is confusion. Without goals, business units, and capabilities aligned, execution falters. Without executive sponsorship, decisions languish. Too little governance allows bad things to happen, while too much governance creates overburdening bureaucracy. Without leadership at all levels of the organization, people are directionless.

Using decades of experience, years of research, and interviews with hundreds of business leaders, Todd Williams illustrates how to fill these gaps, meet corporate goals, and increase value.


Article written by Todd Williams 17th April 2019