Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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How to stop your projects failing in 2018

By the end of this year, I will have delivered training courses and speeches in 15 countries across four continents. Given that my work is always tailored to my clients needs (there’s no such thing as ‘standard’ when it comes to development), I build a picture of what works well and what doesn’t in order to retain the things that work and address the root causes of failure.

What I’ve found is that the problems encountered with project delivery are almost universally the same around the world. They’re not different by gender, age, country or continent. They’re not more or less prevalent depending on where the organisation is during the financial year and they’re equally the same in the public and private sector.

Here’s a snapshot of them:

Project managers are hired in the wrong way - People are hired for the project management ‘badges’ that they hold (‘Must be PMP certified’) and for the subject matter expertise that they have (‘Must have Sharepoint knowledge’). Whilst these things are important they will always be secondary to the ability to lead and build great teams. As one client said to me: ‘We have created a culture of know-it-all-ism that doesn’t lend itself to getting things delivered in the right way.’

Project managers don’t know how to motivate and inspire - The one thing that ‘standard’ certification courses don’t do is perhaps the most important part of being a project manager! They don’t provide project managers with the knowledge and skills of how to be emotionally intelligent and to be able to motivate and inspire a team of people to do likewise. The best projects are always led by the best people who create the best teams. This point was reinforced by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their book First Break All The Rules, who found that ‘Self-aware individuals are the building blocks of great teams.’

Planning is poor - Despite the fact that project managers have been on courses to understand the different techniques for planning projects, the level of detail is still poor as is managing the risk to it. Project managers (and scrum masters) have three jobs: build the team, build the plan, deliver the project. Always in that order. Too often planning is done at a high-level or, worse still, not done at all. If there’s no plan, there’s no project.

Senior managers don’t understand the value of good project management - Often it’s because they’ve never seen what it looks like, but often it’s because they don’t insist on it. In most of the organisations I’ve worked with there are too many projects being undertaken which serve on to demoralise those that are working on them. There’s also a false notion that being a project sponsor is an extension of business as usual, which is dangerous and wrong. Without the right level of input and commitment to a project from senior managers, it’s doomed to failure from the start, which - according to one survey - could be as high as 75% for some organisations.

Process is used as a stick - Nothing says, ‘We’ve got our approach wrong’ than project management process being mandated. If plans aren’t produced, reports aren’t submitted on time, risk registers and schedules aren’t updated, then it’s a performance management issue not a process adherence one. Having said all that, the process that I encountered in most businesses was good enough to support the business of good project delivery and in some cases was fantastic. It just wasn’t being used. PMOs need to ensure that project managers see the value in the organisation’s approach and have the capability to produce ‘minimum viable documentation’ in order to get projects delivered. 

Where transformation has been most effective, the following have been true:

A new culture was defined - Not just defined, but clearly articulated and understood. A culture that describes the vision that project managers have of their own function, a set of behaviours to role model and some principles of what great looks like. The service they provide should always go to 11 and the culture will determine that.

Senior managers were part of the program - Often, with project management development programs, the focus is on those responsible for delivery, not those accountable. In order to transform the culture of delivery, it needs to encompass both – preferably with senior managers being trained first so that they understand their role in supporting the transformation.

Project managers changed their mindset - The biggest changes I’ve witnessed (and been proud to be part of) are those where project managers decided that in order to be successful, they needed a different mindset, not a new process. They became more self-aware, changed some of their fixed ways and embraced an ‘anything is possible’ mindset. They also worked hard on the mechanics of their role, and shared information with others on how to do it well. Abraham Maslow once said that ‘Self-development takes great courage and long struggle’ but no-one ever says it isn’t worth it.

Development activity was undertaken every month - The old adage of ‘little and often’ is never more true than with personal development. Whilst it’s important to gain a blast of knowledge at the start and an agreement on how to move forward, only through continual improvement can you provide people with the skills they need and, by doing this, evolve your culture from good to great.

There was accountability - Great project management cultures don’t have to be told to follow a process, plan well, be the best version of themselves or to role model behaviours. In these cultures the individuals hold themselves to this standard. They challenge each other to be better, find innovative ways to share ideas and lessons learned (that aren’t spreadsheets!) and never stop asking for feedback. Only through continual feedback can any of us ever hope to improve and where there’s a culture of courage, there’s a team of accountable people who want to make a difference to the world.

Any project function, regardless of sector, country or continent can become world class and deliver projects consistently well. You have to stop making the same mistakes and invest in a different approach. If you’re up for the challenge next year, I’d love to work with you, wherever you are in the world.

I’m delighted to announce that I’m now taking bookings for 2018 for the following programs: 

The Project Leadership Academy - an intensive immersion for project managers and sponsors that redefines and captures the new delivery culture and provides everyone involved with the leadership and team-building skills to be successful, every time. 

The Conscious Project Leader - a program that provides project managers, scrum masters and team leaders with the emotional intelligence skills required to be the best versions of themselves and create teams that everyone wants to join. 

Sponsoring Projects to Success - a program that provides those that sponsor projects with the practical knowledge of how to become a role model for transformation. From behaviours to running great steering committee meetings, successful projects start and end with the commitment of the sponsor. 

Getting to Know You - a program to lift collaboration of any team, anywhere. From flight crew to engineers, this program raises self-awareness, provides an action plan for improvement and transforms communication. 

If you would like to know more about these programs and the benefits they deliver head to my programs page

To arrange a chat with me to discuss your organisations requirements, please contact Jodie at


Transform your project delivery culture