Focusing on lipstick instead of the pig

I have delivered a lot of projects over the last 20 years, read a lot of project management books, and have gone to a lot of conferences searching for the elusive answer to the same old question “Why do projects fail?”. It is such a simple question yet after all this time, for some reason the answer appears to elude us. Maybe it’s because the answer isn’t simple? Perhaps it’s because we still don’t know? Or maybe we actually know the answer, and we just don’t want to hear it? Because projects don’t fail, leaders do.

Focusing on lipstick instead of the pig

Now I can understand why some leaders won’t want to hear that they are the problem. After all, they are Executives, Senior Leaders, Program & Project Managers, Product Owners, Architects, Engineers, Change Managers, you name it, they all have leadership skin in the game. The same goes for consultants, professional services companies, and even project management bodies, who all make good money out of the fear of project failure and who apparently know just the right shade of lipstick to apply to avoid it. But the failure continues. According to the Project Management Institute for every $1bn of investment in projects, $97m is wasted due to poor implementation. To make matters worse, they also report that the primary reason for project failure is lack of executive support.  To me, this is a polite way of saying “you’re wasting your money and it’s your own fault.” And it is. Rather than continuing to put lipstick on pigs, hoping that a framework or new way of working will somehow bring home the bacon, leaders at all levels need to learn that successful strategic change and projects come down to bloody hard work! They succeed when everyone involved commits to leading and overcoming everything that the pesky project throws in their way and not giving in. Not just the sponsor or the project manager. Everyone.

A lack of commitment costs you and your organisation!

When you lead a project or part of a project, it’s easy to assume that everyone is committed to it and what you are there to do. After all, the project was approved, money was assigned, and someone asked you to join it, so everyone is naturally committed to it, right? Wrong! Projects are susceptible to the same people challenges as the rest of the business around them. Lack of engagement, distrust, and good old politics mean that, even if your priority is performance and success, everyone else might have different ideas. Back in September, I spoke with Jeff a leader in local government here in Australia. He said that the politics surrounding his project was so rife that most of his stakeholders were either consciously or subconsciously sabotaging progress. He was worried about the lack of progress, what it would mean for the outcomes they were trying to achieve, and the deadlock he needed to overcome to avoid being potentially sacked. I also heard from Sarah who’s project team were so keen to sustain business as usual that their procrastination was creating stress and frustration across the group. They were getting nowhere fast. Neither of these stories has anything to do with the way that their projects were delivering and it has everything to do with who was involved and their level of commitment. So where is yours? Are you secretly sabotaging projects by prioritising different work? Are you engaging in office politics? Just not showing up to meetings? Or are you fully committed and helping to supercharge project delivery in a way that honours the vision and investment that was agreed?

How to Supercharge Project Success

To lead your project or part of it successfully you, and everyone else on it needs three things.
  1. Strength – this part is about you as an individual. You need to be strong, determined and resilient enough to see your project succeed. It takes courage to overcome the roadblocks and rise above the lipstick wearing saboteurs that surround you.
  2. Shine – this part is about your leadership. You need to be the beacon guiding the right path for people to follow. This is what credible, trusted leadership looks like, on a project and off.  It’s the best version of you; it’s what you should be known for and it’s who people want to work with.
  3. Success – this part is about your project. You need to be clear on what success looks like, and what you are going to have to overcome along the way. This is where your commitment (and everyone else’s) kicks in. What are you committing to lead and are you?
  In my next article, I’ll dig deeper into each of these and what you can do to lead your project and team to success. Until then stop focusing on the lipstick and start changing the pig. Because as the saying goes:
“When it comes to making bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved and the pig is committed”
If this article resonated with you or you see a gap between expected and actual delivery in your organisation, check out my leadership and mentoring programs or reach out at hello@juliasteel.com

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