Why Great Teams Sometimes Fail: Project Management vs. Delivery Management – Part 1

On one of my client projects, I was engaged to contribute on a mission critical project that almost failed.  After attending several meetings, it became apparent that the project team was unable to make progress.  The individual team members were competent, motivated, worked exceptionally well together, and the overall project plan provided more than enough time to complete the work. So, what went wrong? Why did such a team that looked so good on the surface come so close to failure?

We all have probably experienced this phenomenon as it occurs frequently in projects within large organizations: a focus on Project Management vs. Delivery Management. Project management is, without a doubt, integral for a successful project, but often the focus is on the artifacts of the project and not on ensuring the project is actually delivered. Too often project managers follow the rigors of a project management structure, but seem to have no sense of urgency in delivery or at times feel helpless to take control of the project delivery schedule.  They dutifully note progress, document issues and risks, and send minutes with the next meeting invitation. Since these activities fulfill the checklist of project management deliverables required by the organization, they usually give the illusion of progress, although little progress is actually occurring.

So in this particular case, I found myself joining a highly competent, motivated team that was falling into this “illusionary progress” trap towards failure.  We needed a different approach.  Through my years of experience and those of my fellow SEI colleagues, this new approach was brought to reality.  Let’s begin with the first step…in order to cultivate a “Delivery Focused” project management mindset, we had to empower the project managers with Leadership, Ownership, and Understanding of Delivery.

Leadership for Delivery

Someone has to drive decisions, direction, and actions like an airplane pilot or a ship captain. Delivery focused leadership creates a vision of what the team can accomplish, emphasizes a sense of urgency through the actions of the leader, and builds confidence that any problem or issue will be handled immediately with whatever resources needed. The quick, effective response to remove obstacles preventing project success is critical to communicating to the team the importance of their success.

Ownership for Delivery

It’s easy to create a milestone, assign a resource, and inquire about progress. However, most milestones are a series of activities that end in a specific achievement or deliverable. Creating ownership means each team member agrees to what they will do and when they will do it. The delivery focused project manager engages the team to make those commitments. Without a specific commitment, leadership will not know when delivery will occur. The following conversation is one which illustrates managing to ownership:

PM TM convo

Without driving ownership in the above discussion, the project manager has no understanding if the deliverable is on target and the team member does not fully own the sequence of activities required to complete their work. The delivery focused project manager helps resources take ownership by understanding what they are responsible to do and agreeing to clear commitments on timelines for delivery.

Understanding for Delivery

Project managers don’t need to understand the deep dive technical issues to deliver a project. However, understanding how things work together and what the system will do when it is completed goes a long way in driving project delivery success. When something isn’t clear, ask a team member to give a sixty second explanation of how it works. Knowing how things work will help the project manager better understand the work effort as well as identify with the team potential risks and issues to the delivery schedule.

Now that we have laid the foundation for driving towards delivery, how do we execute on it and communicate outward and upward the progress being made?  In part two of our series, we’ll explore the management of activities and communication for delivery.

Rudy Gottschalk

About Rudy Gottschalk