Why Projects Fail & Six Steps to Avoid That Fate

ME_200_StartWhereYouAreMy favorite Harvard Business Review article was from sometime in the 80’s, and yes, I am the sort of person who has a favorite HBR article.  While the one I’m thinking of is so old I don’t have a reference for it, the gist of it was this:

The #1 Reason Projects Fail: Failure to Start

Duh.  Talk about Blinding Flashes of the Obvious.There was a lot of data int the article, as I recall, but the conclusion was strking.

Bear with me here:  How many great ideas do you have on a list somewhere that you will get to someday?  Or how many projects are you trying to move forward at the same time, right now? And none of them are actually getting very far.

I had a folder in grad school titled “Grandiose Dissertation Plans”. At least by the time I made the folder, I realized they were grandiose, as in not happening in the allotted time.  I captured  them anyway, since after the dissertation was coming a research career, yes?  And I would need ideas to work on there.  When I got back to work in my corporate job, they had other ideas for me to work on, and I never got back to that folder. I never started on those great ideas. so

Step Zero: Start.

Here is a foolproof way to ensure your projects get started.  Block a couple of hours in your schedule to work on Step One (next). Make an appointment with yourself, and keep it.

Step One:  Collect your ideas.

They may be content ideas, for blog posts, speeches, workshops, articles or books.  They may be marketing ideas, for website, ads, and social media.  They may be operations ideas for your small business, for an improved prospecting or sales process, for a follow-up sequence, or for invoicing and getting paid!

You can keep a list on paper, on your computer or your smart whatever-device-you-use.  You can bookmark web pages, or cut out articles, or draw pictures.  You can carry an idea notebook, or use a colorful folder,  Hint:  the fewer places you stash them, the easier it will be to find them for the next step.

Step Two:   Categorize your ideas.

Pull out your folder with your ideas and projects (no need for them to be grandiose). Just use three filters here.

A. Which will have the most impact on your business? B.  Are they short term or longer term? Easy or complex?  C.  Which has the most bang for your buck, or time, invested? Don’t overanalyze here.  It should be pretty obvious.

Step Three:  Choose one.

Just one for now.  The rest will still be in the folder, which you can add to as well.  You can choose one to finish today, one to finish this week, one to finish this month, quarter, year-or even in a longer time frame. You can also work on just one bigger one and divide the tasks into day, week, month milestones you want to hit.

Focus on the one you picked.   Write down the main tasks you need to accomplish to launch that idea.  Write down the first three steps.  Can anyone else do any of the tasks or steps? Ask them to.  Which step is it that ONLY YOU can take to get this project moving?  Do that one. And then the next one.

Step Four: Continue.

Stick to it.  Perservere. Schedule time for it. Whatever the project, no matter how eager you are about it, It will get hard in the middle.   It may get boring, or you will have to go learn something, or implore the people who are supposed to be helping you to actually do their part.  Or you will get distracted, and want to work on another, brighter, shinier idea, because you can’t see the hard partof the new one yet.

To paraphrase Rosabeth Moss Kantor, again of Harvard Business School.  “Everything can look like a failure in the middle.  If something reasonable isn’t working out the way we thought it would, we must be in the middle of it.”

Step Five:  Finish.

Congratulations. You started.   Now you just have to finish up. What does “DONE” look like?  One blog post.  Probably not.  A whole series?  That’s more like it.  How about a book?  Or the end game may be a process for finding prospects and enrolling them.  You could do that over and over, not just once, or one at a time. Just don’t give up till it’s done.

Many years ago, (you can look it up if you really care), my graduate advisor warned me about .the 95% solution. Almost finished, but lacking that special something that tells others (and yourself) that this is a concept, project, program…yes, a person…to be reckoned with.

Or as a friend of my brother’s said, “I’m almost done with it.  All I have left is to finish up.”

Lorette Pruden, PhD, is the author of Formerly Corporate:  Mindset Shifts for Success in your Own Business, 2013, and Finish your Book:  A Time Management Guide for Writers, 2011, both published by Open Door Publications, Yardley, PA.

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