Eliminating Risks That Kill Projects -- A Roadmap

Conducting an organizational project is tricky, especially if it is expected to help realize some defined vision. How do you prioritize the people, process and technology goals associated with these efforts while minimizing the risk of losing sight of the larger purpose?

Assessing Project Risk

What does it mean to assess "project risk"? It's a matter of identifying elements of the project that if poorly managed will cause it to be perceived as less than satisfactory or an outright failure.

As stated by Lloyd Rain in an article describing the challenges of IT Projects:

"The truth is that the great majority of IT projects do not fail — most simply do not go as well as originally hoped, take longer than planned and cost more than anticipated. These are really not failures at all; you might classify them as "discouraging successes".

What would it take exceed expectations on IT and organizational projects that involve people, process and technology change? It starts with having a plan to address the following four elements:

The Four Elements of All Projects

Organizational project have hundreds of moving parts, tasks and milestones. These pieces can be collapsed into four broad categories. They are:

  1. Vision and Goals
  2. Buy-in
  3. Planning and Preparation
  4. Capacity and Personnel

Vision and Goals

A vision often serves two functions; it motivates decision-makers to commit time, money and resources to get projects off the ground and two, as a destination for what constitutes success.

Be careful though. The use of vision as a means to secure up-front commitment from senior management as well as defining the ideal end point for the project often produces this sense of discouraging success.

This is because once buy-in and resources have been allocated, vision takes on a lower priority. Lost among hundreds of tasks and milestones, the project becomes less about delivering on the vision and more about delivering something to justify the investment.

Questions to ask around vision and goals:

  1. Has the vision been clearly defined?
  2. If so, has it be articulated in a way that different stakeholders understand?


Buy-in is a critical success factor that for the most part needs to be reframed around commitment, not whether people feel good, bad, or indifferent. Enthusiasm is useful, but it's the incorrect measure for buy-in around a project.

We need to also do a better job of including skepticism, doubt and concerns as necessary phases that people go through in a change project. Having doubts or concerns is an appropriate starting point for people who are used to doing things one way and then asked to change.
Questions to consider:

  1. What does buy-in current look like in your projects and how can it be reframed as a question of "commitment"?
  2. Are you excluding skeptics, doubters and challengers at the expense of the long-term success of the initiative? If so, how can you change that?

Planning and Preparation

Of the four risk categories, planning and preparation are probably the most practiced and well understood in organizational change initiatives.

The challenge around planning comes back to making sure there is a direct line from tasks to vision. Without continuous reflection of "where are we relative to our vision?", milestones and tasks take on a life of their own. Getting things done becomes more important than evaluating if the work is moving toward or away from the overall goal.

The project may be successful in that people are working hard to get things done, but it's also a "discouraging success" in that the work is moving away from its intended outcome.

Questions to consider:

  1. Are we closer or further away from our vision relative to what we're spending our time doing?
  2. Have we given up the vision to get the work done? If so, what needs to happen to get our tasks aligned with the vision?

Capacity and Personnel

Whether labeled a technology, IT or organizational project, it's capacity and personnel that drives work to completion. There are two primary groups — those helping to realize the vision and the intended beneficiaries of the change. Too often we move forward on projects with untested assumptions about people's preparedness — both to lead the projects as well as inherit the change.

For a group to become a successful team, there needs to be much greater transparency in what each person can count on others for. Knowing each others strengths and weaknesses is central to building a well-oiled team.

Team question to answer:

Rate each person on the team based on the following criteria. Then discuss as a group where the gaps lie and how they can be filled:

  1. Management skills
  2. Communication/presentation skills
  3. Organizational/business knowledge
  4. Technical skills
  5. Accountability to results

Project risk can be minimized or eliminated by understanding gaps in vision, buy-in, planning and capacity. Avoiding or not addressing any one of these categories runs the risk of creating another "discouraging success" initiative. It's time to raise the bar and focus on exceeding expectations of going from an initial vision, through tasks, and back to the vision itself.

Achieving Vision

"If it wasn't for the 'last minute', nothing would get done."