How To Avoid Project Failure

I recently saw an excellent presentation by Robyn Defelice explaining how instructional designers can practice individual leadership to help a project succeed and to develop personal and career skills. I’m excited to share her insights with you. Here’s an interview with Robyn, a Ph.D. candidate, Coordinator of the Path Lab at Indiana University and an adjunct faculty member at LaSalle University.

Connie: What common issues contribute to projects being late and over-budget?
It is not uncommon to have the instructional design process take much of the blame for a project being late and over-budget. Research, however, indicates that it’s a lack of client onboarding and project management that contributes largely to these two issues. For example, factors that can increase cost and lengthen the timeline of any training development project include the time it takes to:

  • Orient the client to the processes
  • Keep a consistent communication process going
  • Develop change and risk management strategies
  • Invest in a technology mitigation plan (as warranted)
  • Hold to one’s accountability

Connie: Which of these factors can be potentially controlled by the project manager?
Many, if not all, of these factors can be controlled by the project manager. However, what is critical is that there is a strong team and a willing client. Though the leadership rests upon the project manager, it is the responsibility of the individual parties involved along the way to ensure they keep to their commitments (accountability) to assist the project manager in keeping the project moving forward.

Connie: How can the individual instructional designer/developer have an impact on controlling the time and cost of a project?
Each one of us can manage ourselves and our portion of the work (accountability) so that we ensure either some reduction in issues or add to the overall effort of reduction. Methods for being more self-managed follow the same ideas as noted previously. We can:

  • Play a part in keeping the client on board and educated to the process—especially when it impacts the work we do
  • Maintain consistent proactive communications flowing with not only the client but with the project manager (This can aid the project manager in change and risk mitigation.)
  • Embody a forward thinking mindset by sharing what the next steps are, what’s expected and ensuring the client comprehends his or her role
  • Identify issues of risk and present alternatives or solutions

Connie: Can you provide an example of how an instructional designer with little authority can have a positive impact on success?
For example, it’s a big help when the instructional designer notifies the project manager if a client is being unresponsive, rather than just letting the deadline slip. Or when the instructional designer alerts the project manager about an issue early in the design portion of a project. This type of input is a big help for many project managers.

Connie: Without much authority, what’s the best way to broach these subjects with supervisors?
Robyn: There is no magic answer to this. However, the key here is plain and simple communication. For example, if you’re addressing a problem that has the potential to push out the timeline, make an effort to present a non-biased account of the situation and present your own thoughts on how to resolve it.

Supervisors appreciate knowing that team members can contribute to the overall success of the project by helping the entire process run smoothly, not just their own piece. We have to remember that not all supervisors have worn the hat of a developer, designer, or programmer. As team members, we are just as responsible for educating our leaders to options and opportunities as we are to the clients we serve—after all we are the hired experts.

Connie: You talk a lot about accountability, can you expand on this?
Taking charge of your work and committing to owning it (for the good work and the no-so-good) is vital. It shows your flexibility to getting the job done and not getting caught up in having the job done your way.  Supervisors can relax a bit when they have team members that can work together to help educate one another on the inter dependencies of their work. You demonstrate accountability when you comprehend the level of impact, if any, that your work has on the project as a whole. The client sees a group of people that are well-vested and interested in ensuring they receive a good quality product.

Connie: What skills should an instructional designer or developer cultivate for improving project management.
Robyn: One skill is the realization that as instructional designers and developers, we (not the client) may need to change ourselves to make a project go more smoothly. Surprisingly this can be a hard pill to swallow.

If we take the time to mentally assess ourselves in the context of our most recent project we may discover that there are some elements within our control that we can improve for future work. For example, perhaps instituting a file naming convention and common folder structure for the project improves version control and reduces overlapping efforts.

Connie: What skills might improve the chances of promotion?
When it comes to promotion, the more self-managed we are the more chances we have of being recognized as a leader. Some will want to leverage this for advancement along the same position (junior ID to senior ID) or some will use it to lend credibility to their skills as they take on a director position or even consulting jobs.

Many of the attributes discussed earlier are good to develop both for project management and promotions. In particular, a truly self-managed, dynamic individual that is aware of his- or herself and willing to improve as needed is the individual that finds success.

You can contact Robyn at: robyn [at] dishingdesign [dot] com.

What are your tips for avoiding project failure? Comment below.

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12 Tips To Improve Your Focus
Online Tools: Improve Your Productivity
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  1. Connie Malamed says

    Thanks for bringing up a positive way to look at not reaching your goals, Sal. Learning from mistakes through a debriefing process with your team is so important.

  2. Reggie says

    Communication is a very important key to anything in life. If a project does not succeed, it is a tool to learn from. Not succeeding, is not failure, lack of trying is failure.
    Communicate and keep on trying.


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