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10 tips for project success: be realistic

how to run successful projects: be realistic

You know the scenario – something has just gone horribly wrong on your project and you’ve just encountered a major setback. It’s Friday afternoon at 4pm when the client gives you a call before they disappear for the weekend and innocently asks;  ‘how’s everything going, are we still ok to hit next week’s deadline?’ The cold sweats hit you and before you are even aware what’s going on, you open your mouth and the words – ‘Yes, it’s all fine!’ just tumble out with no warning whatsoever. And in an instant, you’re in a bit of a pickle.

Saying yes to clients is always the easy option. But be careful you’re not being a sell-out for your team (and yourself) with a world of pain later. Saying no is a lot tougher, but it’s the wise thing to do. It’s always worth reframing the situation. In and of itself, if a project didn’t meet its original timeline, budget or scope, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a failure – but failing to appropriately lead the team or client through the change can result in project failure.

It probably won’t be all right

As much as it’s nice to be Captain Chirpy and spread positive feel good vibes around, as project managers we need to stay grounded in reality. Never rely on hoping for the best. If you find yourself saying ‘I think we’ll probably be fine.’ – you’re probably, not being realistic. Probably is not your friend. It will bite you in the butt. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. And if you don’t know yet, say that. Just make sure you’re being realistic and confront the issues now. Admit you’ve got an issue, but follow up quickly with a solution – ‘Here’s how we’re going to deal with it together.’ Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to be pressurized into making bad or rushed decisions.

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Be pragmatic in your optimism

Success requires optimism, but in equal amounts, realism. Without a healthy dose of realism you can find yourself willing and hoping a project to succeed when there’s something that you need to deal with, in order to guarantee success for the project.

Sooner or later, you have to face up to reality; if a project isn’t working out as planned, you need to have the courage to face up to the things that you need to change. Whatever that change is, it’s likely to impact the timeline, budget, scope and your team.

Consider the timeline, budget and scope levers and work with your team to work out a plan to pivot back to success. Then communicate with the client the amended plan to get their buy-in too. The sooner you sort out the solution, the better. If you keep hoping that it’ll turn out alright, or never quite manage to work out your pivot plan, the situation is unlikely to improve. Don’t ‘wait and see’ – start dealing with it now.

Deal with it now

It’s only when you face up to reality that you can begin to put into a plan to get the project back on track. Success lies in the foresight to recognise when the current plan isn’t going to work, and having the confrontational ability to tackle the issue head on, and leadership and drive to get it back on track.

Good decisions – like confronting an issue – always pay off in the end. Confronting the issue doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to be as happy as they were when they were in blissful ignorance that the issue wasn’t an issue. But left unchecked, that issue could balloon into total project failure. Bad decisions never pay off, no matter how quickly you take them. When you confront issues early, you can always find some resolution.

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Prepare to be unpopular

So why don’t we do it? We all like to be liked. A quick path to failure is to agree to everything with both the client and your team and then fail to deliver anything. We tend to favour keeping the peace today over long term success.

This can result in sometimes saying ‘Yes’ when really you should be saying ‘No’. In order to be liked (in the short term) by our teams, or by the client you can distort your view of the reality of your projects. So to greatly improve the chances of success on your project, be willing and ready to say ‘no’.

Be honest with yourself and take a long-term view on the project. Don’t be pessimistic, but make sure you’re not relying on hoping things will work out alright in the end. Ask yourself; can we do this? Are we on track? Be honest, if you’re not on track, what are you going to do about it?

What do you think?

What do you think? How important is being realistic to ensuring your project success? I’d love to hear if you’ve got any thoughts on ensuring project success in digital project management. Join the conversation below and let us know what you’re thinking!

Ben Aston

About Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and VP of Client Services at FCV, a full service digital agency in Vancouver, Canada. I've been in the industry for more than 10 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS’, flash games to banner ads and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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