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Rescue a Failing Project: Analyze the System

By: SEI Team

Businesswoman making notes sitting at table meeting with colleagues in modern office

How do you analyze the cause of failure in a project that has gone off track? How do you examine an almost infinitely complex system (like a modern corporation) and find where the failure occurred?

System dynamics, a modeling technique developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is designed to tackle the analysis of complex systems through diagnosis of causes at the root level. While systems thinking has a multitude of useful applications across an organization, it is exceptionally well suited for diagnosing problems at the project level— helping project managers pinpoint internal feedback loops and understand how time delays in various activities can impact the overall behavior of a working system.

Systems thinking stands in contrast to the commonly used method of analyzing the end result, which does little to elucidate the actual contributing variables to success or failure. Instead, it studies each variable and its interactions within an entire organizational system. By testing these variables, you can identify which components produce positive results when mixed together within a project system, and which components will inevitably lead you down the path to a highly dysfunctional project. This scientific approach to discovering and remedying issues within a system may seem like a large undertaking, but it can actually be quite simple.

While each system or organization is unique, there are some common pathologies that will consistently lead to negative, reinforcing project dynamics and derail your project:

1. “Less is more”

Underfunding or understaffing a project is nothing more than a great way to generate a failure. While cutting your staff will cause the remaining members to work harder, there are limits to the sustainability of long work hours, and employees who are fatigued and over-stressed are more prone to make mistakes and eventually become demotivated. Cutting other resources (namely money) will have a similar effect by introducing constraints that can be quite harmful to the quality of your end product, either through project timeline compression, or inability to accommodate unforeseen changes in project scope. If you cannot set aside the proper funding and man power needed to successfully implement a project, it is best to wait until you can.

2. “They’re not really involved, so we don’t need to tell them anything”

When launching a project, every manager, regardless of their involvement in the project, needs to be informed and on the same page. It’s critical that managers across the organization have a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the project and understand its value to the organization, as failure to effectively communicate with and get buy-in from managers can be damaging to the productivity of your project. This is because most employees are staffed on projects on a part-time basis, and ultimately receive direction from their first-line supervisors. And, in a case where the work isn’t valued, conflicting priorities and tasks handed down by managers to their employees will be a recipe for failure – creating a dynamic in which lack of respect for deadlines or deliverables will trickle down to the individual team members, and result in de-prioritization of project tasks. The most successful projects have a well-designed communications strategy that addresses engagement of all stakeholders before the project launches and throughout its implementation.

3. “I don’t want to see any mistakes”

When you’re on a fast-paced project track, and every second counts, it is very easy to develop a culture in which mistakes are harshly criticized. While performance and quality are critical to success, it’s important that managers understand that mistakes will be made. As a result, by not creating a system in which incentives exist to identify mistakes (and to identify them early), errors are inevitably hidden, only to be discovered very late in the process – at a point in which the impact can be devastating. For this reason, Quality Assurance (QA) should be a constant, proactive process, and quick identification of errors should be encouraged. Depending on the situation, this may require a single QA individual or an entire department that is separate from the project. Having a separate QA process, employee or team will significantly increase the likelihood of finding and eliminating problems early, and help prevent the late discovery of errors, which can be significantly more costly.

4. “Once this project is done, you’ll really see the value in what you’ve accomplished”

People need to have a sense of purpose to remain motivated. This is especially true when working on long, daunting projects that don’t have easily tangible results before completion. Having a vision that is clearly articulated and understood by all is important, but it’s even more important to ensure that project team members are provided with constant feedback on their performance and repetitive reinforcement of progress made toward achieving the vision. In doing so, the project team can sustain a consistent sense of accomplishment and purpose. The key lesson here is that maintaining a focus on the drivers of personal motivation will keep morale high, production strong and the project on schedule.

Determining why a project failed or where it went wrong is dependent on one’s understanding of the internal dynamics that comprise the entire system. A surface analysis of events and outcomes will literally only scratch the surface of the problem, and relying on human intuition alone to determine why a project failed will likely not produce any particularly helpful insights. To be truly effective, managers must look for cause and effect of interrelated factors in order to appreciate what drives the behavior of the system. By systematically outlining potential feedback loops within your project delivery process, you can develop profound counter-intuition that can rescue your current project, or at a minimum, guarantee that your next project will be a success.