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5 Reasons Projects Get Delayed – And How to Get Them Back on Track

5 Reasons Projects Get Delayed – And How to Get Them Back on Track

By Diana Asbury

Only 47% of projects finish on time — That’s less than half of all projects. 

But why do projects get derailed so frequently? 

According to a Gallup article, one of the largest factors in why projects fail is people. Whether it be the project leadership, team members, executives, or other stakeholders, it ultimately comes down to team and people dynamics. 

Today we’ll be covering five reasons why projects get derailed, that are, in large, focused around things like motivation, communication, and managing teams. 

We’ll also cover ways you can combat these problems and get your projects back on track. 


Prefer a video of this article? You’re in luck! We hosted a webinar, “5 Reasons Marketing Projects Get Derailed – And How to Get Them Back on Track”. Check it out!


Reason 1: Team members don’t know the ‘why’ behind the work

With busy teams, it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing. But, the concept of ‘line of sight’ states that employees perform better when they can see the connection between their goals and the organization’s goals. 

Often we focus on external motivators with our teams, such as promotions, bonuses, and raises. We assume people are motivated by growth — And this is true. But there’s been interesting research that suggests that ‘line of sight’ isn’t just about external motivators. 

There was a study out of the University of North Carolina, where the researcher, Adam Grant, did a field experiment with a group of fundraisers at a University and split them into three groups. 

  • The first group was a control group that received nothing. 
  • The second group read two stories about how performing the job could make a difference in their own lives.
  • The third group read two stories about how performing the job could make a difference in others’ lives.

The first two groups performed exactly the same as they had in the past. But, the third group, the one that received stories about how their role would improve the lives of others, had double the amount of contributions

In general, the more employees can understand the why behind what they’re doing and see how it will affect others, the more they’ll be motivated to do good work. 

This also aligns with Simon Sinek’s concept of Start with Why. Sinek’s theory is that people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. 

Your team is buying-in to your goals when they work on a project. You are selling them an outcome. When you forget to sell how the outcome of a project will affect the overall success of your team, company, and those you serve, you’re missing a core piece of the puzzle.  

Actionable things you can do to promote the why behind the project

  1. Involve your team from the start of the project. They need to feel connected to the plan. 
  2. Part of this is asking for and listening to feedback. This will help you uncover any concerns, address them, and gain buy-in
  3. Next, you’ll want to connect their goals to the outcome so that they can have a line-of-sight into their future.
  4. But most importantly, you’ll want to show them how the work will impact your greater mission, specifically helping others succeed, whether it be others in your company or your customers. 

Takeaway: A line of sight, not just to career goals, but to a greater mission of helping others is essential to seeing continuous progress. 

Reason 2: Managers are afraid of being micromanagers

Micromanaging has gotten a bad rap, and for a good reason. When you think of micromanaging, you likely think of having to stand over one of your team members’ shoulders and constantly bug them. 

Just hearing the word “micromanage” may make you have an adverse emotional reaction. And it’s no question; employees need the space to focus, use their autonomy, and do the best work they can.

But that emotional reaction has led to the pendulum swinging too far the other way in many teams. Some managers have reacted by stepping back too far. They don’t know what their team is doing day-to-day, they aren’t setting clear deadlines, and too much time passes between meetings. 

Harvard Professor, Tsedal (Sadel) Neeley found that “to get employees to do something, managers need to ask them at least twice.”

Neely found that just 1 in 7 communications with employees was repeating communication from the past. But that when communication was deliberately redundant, it moved projects forward faster and more smoothly.

The most effective managers didn’t just say something in a meeting; they followed-up and expected a response. Many times they said it in the exact same way so that it was clear what they were referring to. 

Most project management systems can help you layout your projects, assign work, set deadlines, and put them in priority order. But then you have to take it to the next level. You need to hone in on what really matters, set that priority, and then take the time to map out how it’s going to get complete. 

It’s important to estimate how much work the tasks within the project will take and manage your teams’ workloads so that they’re not feeling overwhelmed. This is essential when it comes to preventing lopsided teams — You don’t want to have some team members carrying far more of the workload and stress. 

‘Social loafing’ is the tendency for people to put in less effort when they’re working as part of a team than when working independently. Social loafing isn’t always intentional. It’s just what happens when you have more people sharing the accountability and recognition of the work. And it happens more than we realize. 

So, while you don’t want to be constantly on top of your team, you need to know who is pulling more than their fair share and who isn’t.

Ways managers can conscientiously manage 

  1. Don’t take your fear of micromanaging to the extreme. To help eliminate the emotional reaction, we need to rename micromanaging to something more fitting to what we’re actually doing, such as conscientious managing. 
  2. Talk about your top priority projects a lot. Over email and in-person — don’t let the conversation drop. 
  3. Use technology to help you plan out your projects and monitor workloads. You’ll be able to see how long they’ll take so your team isn’t overworked. Once you have everything in one system, it should give each person an individual to-do list every day. 
  4. Make sure you reward team members for their individual effort. Research from Jennifer Mueller, a Wharton, Yale, and NYU professor, suggests that we need to break our teams into smaller groups, unbundle team tasks as much as we can, and make sure we’re holding individuals accountable. By focusing on individuals’ performance, we can also celebrate them individually, so they are aware they’re being seen and recognized for their hard work and contributions. 

Takeaway: It’s essential to set clear priorities, and communicate those priorities over and over again in multiple ways. Additionally, to prevent social loafing, you need to understand how much work each of your team members is putting in and hold them individually accountable and reward them for their effort. 

Reason 3: Everyone thinks they’re communicating clearly

The “Illusion of transparency” means there is a tendency for people to overestimate how well others know their mental state. Research shows that people only understand what you’re saying to the point where they could repeat it back clearly around 30% of the time. 

As we discussed in the last section, there’s no question that we need to repeat ourselves more frequently. But this goes much further. The key here is that we need to make sure our communication is understood. We also need to make sure we understand others. 

Too often, we find ourselves meeting with clients and stakeholders and finding out that we don’t have all the information. And this leads to project delays, budget overruns, and other problems. 

Only 23% of organizations reported that teams were always in agreement when a project is complete. This tells us that it’s not just communication that’s the problem — the big problem is goal alignment. 

So why are we so out of alignment on project outcomes? 

One research study states, “that projects often fail because of changing interests among the parties involved.” 

Here’s how a typical project goes: 

The client, whether from another department or from outside of the organization, sends a project request. We ask for some information. We think we understand to the best of our ability. And we get to work. And then, scope creep happens. 

It’s the messy middle of a project. Your team puts in hours and hours of work. Then you update the client, and things are well, messy. 

There’s no question that managing projects in an all-in-one project management tool will help. But, there’s much more we can do too. 

What teams can do to prevent misalignment and scope creep 

  1. We’ve got to make a clear project plan. Specifically, we need to outline what is in scope.
  2. Review the outline with your stakeholders and make it clear if/where there is wiggle room and/or if there are areas where you’ll need their help making decisions along the way
  3. You need to get your clients to sign off on the project. Make sure that they have said that you fully understand and are aligned. 
  4. Lastly, make sure that you have one location for all follow-up communication. You don’t want to be chasing down emails, notes, or referring to discussions in and out of meetings with no follow-up notes. 

Takeaway: Make sure you take the time to lay out the project’s scope, get sign off, use it as a guide during discussions, and keep communication all in one place. 

Reason 4:  Teams are trying too hard to avoid conflict.

The reality is that work is hard, and inevitably in a project, there comes a time for conflict. But too often we try to avoid conflict. And that often comes at a disadvantage to teams. 

When you try to avoid dealing with issues in your team, they fester and grow. Meanwhile, although it’s difficult some days, when you handle them head-on, you come out on the other side even stronger. 

For most of us, handling conflict isn’t easy. So it’s not hard to see why managers try to avoid it. 

But conflict won’t solve itself. And often, those difficult conversations end up being the most meaningful for you and your team members in the long-term. 

According to research out of Columbia University, events. where emotion is attached. are remembered far into the future. 

If you try to pick a random date out of the calendar, the likelihood you’ll remember what happened that day is very slim. But imagine if that day, something emotional happened to you — you can probably recall the details and feelings of the day quite clearly. 

It’s the same when we address issues head-on with our team — Not just surface-level issues, but real emotional concerns that could be holding our team back. These are key coaching moments that can impact team dynamics for the long-term. 

Addressing issues can help employees feel cared for, heard, and become more motivated. It turns out that conflict can actually be really good for a project when handled correctly.  

To be clear, when we’re talking about conflict, we’re not talking about angry outbursts, manipulation, or behavior that’s causing deadlocks. This type of behavior should be addressed immediately as inappropriate. 

What we’re talking about is conflict coming from passion and purpose. When employees feel like their thoughts and ideas are valued on the team. 

But, accepting others’ feedback and opinions can be really difficult when things aren’t going well. One of the key takeaways of Scott Belsky’s book, The Messy Middle, is that leaders need to pay specific attention to how they handle what he calls peaks and valleys — when things are going well — and when things are not going well. 

“At the valleys, [when things aren’t going well], we’re not our best selves because we make decisions out of fear.” When we’re in fear mode, we’re afraid our ideas won’t work, we’re afraid their ideas won’t work, and because we’re so emotional, we can’t clearly think through things. 

And as for peaks, Scott shares that “At the peaks, we’re not our best selves because we falsely attribute success to things that we’ve done before that worked, and start to become headstrong.” 

This is specifically seen when we believe we are right and that we just intuitively know that our ideas will work, instead of paying attention to what the data is telling us. Or when one thing is successful, we expect that the next will be just as successful. 

How to use conflict to your team’s advantage

  1. Tackle immediate problems that need to be solved quickly. Getting your team to work together and share ideas, energizes them, and propels the team forward to fix the problem faster. An added benefit here is a boost in productivity at the moment. 
  2. Promote brainstorming to find new and unique ideas. This one can be a bit more tricky. With different team dynamics, you may find it’s best to have people send in their ideas before the meeting or try using activities where everyone gets to think on their own first, like writing on a sticky note. This allows those that are more shy in person or need to think privately to have the space to come up with great ideas. Then in a meeting you can have a discussion that allows for energized and passionate debate and improvement of ideas. 
  3. Encourage team input into decision making along the course of a project. Many times along a project process, you’ll find yourself needing to make decisions that will affect the steps following. These are times when you want your team to speak up if they feel something is wrong. 

Takeaway: Conflict, when it comes in the form of respectful discourse, can actually help your team handle issues faster, come up with new ideas, and avoid issues in the future when pivotal decisions have to be made.

Reason 5: Stakeholders aren’t seeing progress quickly enough. 

Whether it’s an exercise plan or diet, saving money for something special, or maybe paying off a mortgage on a home — we’ve all had that feeling like we’re spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere. We keep telling ourselves there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s hard. 

And this feeling is how a lot of teams can feel when they first start a project. 

You lay out all of the tasks and look at all the work that needs to be done and think… How are we ever going to get there? 

But projects can be designed in a way that helps keep up the momentum. The key is that we need to see progress. 

The Progress Principle states that progress contributes to positive inner work life, creating an upward spiral of creativity, engagement, and performance. Progress makes us feel good. 

And to bring us full circle from the first concept we discussed: progress that is centered around what we believe is meaningful work is important. 

But there’s more to this than just showing progress on what you and your team care about. A study called “The impact of progress indicators on task completion“, was done that looked at how progress indicators can help people be more motivated. 

It’s normal these days to have checkmarks of some sort in your project management system. But how you set up the tasks themselves is what could make or break your project. 

In the progress study, they took four groups and provided different spacing in between each task. 

  • The first group saw no progress signs. 
  • The second group saw evenly spaced signs of progress throughout the process. 
  • The third group saw more signs of progress at the beginning, and then they slowed down. 
  • And the fourth group saw slow progress at the beginning and faster progress at the end. 

The research showed that showing more signs of progress at the beginning of a project is more important

In the beginning, you need to get your team to commit to the project fully and be motivated to move forward. So checking off more tasks and seeing they are further along in the project, even if it’s somewhat false, is still leading people to want to get even more work done. 

This is one of the big reasons why some project management systems show what percent of the project is complete and what percentage of individual tasks are complete. 

Ways to show more progress early on

  1. You can split the project into parts or sprints so that you have a focused area of work that you can check off quickly. Setting milestones can work like this as well. 
  2. Another option is to be more specific about tasks at the beginning. It’s never a bad idea to be clear with your team about what steps they need to take.
  3. Be creative, and do what works best for your team. We all have to experience some trial and error to find what helps our teams operate best.  

Takeaway: The way you design a project can have a big impact. It’s important to show more progress at the beginning as it motivates your team with early wins.

Conclusion

The main reason many projects get derailed comes down to the people involved. You can help ensure the success of your projects in five key ways. 

Make sure your team has a clear line of sight of the overall project mission and how they’re helping others. Share clear priorities over and over again in multiple ways and hold team members individually accountable. Communicate clearly and store communication all in one place. Promote healthy conflict in the form of respectful discourse. And design your projects to show more progress at the beginning.

At Workzone, we know that software alone isn’t enough to guarantee a project’s success — Which is why we help you through our proven adoption process and give you unlimited support so you can sustain process change. 

Set up a demo with one of our team members so that you can learn more about how our software and support can help you successfully complete more projects.

Diana Asbury is the Head of Marketing at Workzone. In this blog, Diana writes about project management, leadership, and marketing. She believes life is more fun when you have a lot to look forward to – at Workzone she’s able to live out her planning dreams every day.