Ten project-hurdles you should be prepared to take

April 19, 2018

“It’s not because things are difficult that we don’t dare – It is because we don’t dare that they are difficult.” (Seneca)

Today in many companies even simple tasks are designated as a "project" - which is wrong in the classic sense of the term. A project is typically defined as a collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve particular objectives. Projects can be further defined as temporary rather than permanent social systems that are constituted by teams within organizations to accomplish particular tasks under time constraints. Successful projects often represent promoter for careers, or the failure prevents the jump in one's career. And a failure can have many causes, but in general they can often be avoided or greatly minimized. All findings mentioned in this article are based on years of personal experience in project management, on scientific literature and articles and apply to almost all types of projects.

Project-hurdle: 1. Create awareness in your organization before the project starts: “Yes, we can!”

The successful implementation of large and relevant projects for the company makes a full and continuous communication far in advance of the project start critical for its success. The more complex and important the project, the earlier must the organization be prepared that in the near future a new subject-matter will engage the company. Related with this the organization and its employees must be set up for potential changes and must understand and accept the importance and the necessity of the project. In the best case, the company succeeds through suitable communication to create interest for the project so that working on the topic of the project appears to be very attractive for many “high potentials” – and the "Obama effect - Yes we can!” arises.


The experience from different projects shows that there are a variety of reasons that encumber successful change, which is normally connected with important projects. Human nature always seeks for stability. Executives who want to move their organization out of this static equilibrium situation in which all processes got into a routine, have to bring energy into the system. The approach building sufficient pressure to create behavioural changes through developing demanding goals for the employees is not enough, because this approach works only when there is already the will to change in the organization. Changes cannot be initiated through the setting of targets, the definition of processes or in day-long workshops on change management, but through constant hard work in instructing the employees as well as practicing roll models of the new behaviours. To successfully implement changes in behaviour and attitude in the organization, which are necessary for the successful implementation of a project, it is essential, that the project leader provides some clarity regarding the necessity of a paradigm change. Furthermore, the management has to be a role model and it has to assure the necessary resources for the implementation.

Project-hurdle: 2. Choose the right project leader and project members

A relevant project always must be visible to the company! This includes amongst other things that the scope of the project is well known and that all employees are well informed about the topics on which will be worked on, about the reasons why the project was initiated and about the possible consequences of the project - for the entire company and for the individual employee. The visibility of this project is also connected to the person of the project leader. This fosters trust and gives a face to the project. Therefore it is extremely important to choose very careful the management of the project.


Certainly the project leader must have the relevant technical and project management skills. However, the interpersonal skills of potential project leaders are often underestimated. It is almost certain, that a manager without pronounced social skills, charisma and persuasiveness can only by his character build barriers and in the worst case he can jeopardize the project’s success, if he is rejected by the project stakeholders. In this case, it may happen that only personal discrepancies will be carried out in the project meetings, rather than working on the content.


The use of external business experts can enrich the project and it can also provide more capacity regarding to the resources. In this case, the role and the organizational integration of the external consultant in the project have to be considered carefully. To pass him the leading role in the project can impede the visibility of the project in the organization and in the worst case it can also lead to his rejection by relevant stakeholders and by project staff - unless you create a project with a dual leadership consisting of an in-house and an external expert.


Finding the right “head” of a project is extremely important – however, not less important is to assure that the right people are involved in the project! The cases, in which employees are temporarily released exclusively to project work, are becoming rare. As a project manager it is the more important, to discuss early, before the project even starts, with the departments involved in the project the assignment of their experts (topics, duration, level of integration). Further concrete personnel discussions should be held once the project is structured. Although the project manager cannot always influence directly the deployment of experts in the project, he can minimize the risk of inappropriate placement through timely discussions on  personnel and, if necessary he can identify and address know-how gaps before the project starts.

A more innovative way to allocate people to projects that fit their needs describes Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategic and International Management, Senior Fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research, London Business School, in his article “Getting the right people on the right projects” 1. The Swiss IT-Company AdNovum has developed a skilled and needs based method for planning their project resources, especially their project staff, based on an internal market, giving people a chance to put themselves forward. After years of experience with this

approach, it was developed further in 2011. The focus still was to understand and to cater to individual needs, but now focused on different pools of experts. This example shows, that there are a lot of approaches to find the right people for a project - but the chosen approach has to fit to the company and to employee’s needs.

Project-hurdle: 3. Chose the project leading method that fits the best – to you, to your project and to the people you will work with

Once you have “the right man” on top of your project and once he has analyzed the starting situation in the company and all relevant conditions, he has to choose the right leadership culture. Right means the one that fits to the project, to the company, to the involved decision maker and to the employees that will work in the project. Choosing the right leadership culture is the difference between success and failure of the project, because companies reflect the ethics, values, principles of its leadership who run them. In general, according to the scientific literature for project management and leadership, you have several possibilities to choose. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages. To reduce the complexity of the mechanisms, two types of leadership methods in project management should be mentioned exemplarily: a participatory or an authoritarian leadership.


The first one was defined by Torbert and Rook2 as follows: “The participatory leadership paradigm is based on respect and engagement. It constructively focuses energy in every human to human encounter. A more advanced, more democratic and more effective model of leadership, it harnesses diversity, builds community, and creates shared responsibility for action. It deepens individual and collective learning, yielding real development and growth.” According to them, participatory leadership is a sustainable and empowering way to create successful organisation development and change. This leadership style gives to the project manager a higher grade of flexibility, because in general decisions are made by a steering committee. The project manager and his team only prepare the decision-making-process and inform the higher “instance” as needed, e.g. the managing board of the company.


The opposite style is called authoritarian, or autocratic. It is a leadership style characterized by individual control over all decisions and little input from group members. Autocratic leaders typically make choices based on their own ideas and judgements and rarely accept advice from followers. If the project leader is the best expert for the project topic, this leadership can work. It also could be the right style to conduce project team members without big know-how or without real willingness to work in the project. In this case, the project manager often decides the possible solutions; he presents them to the managing board of the company, which order to the involved company divisions to implement these in this way. As mentioned above, there is not only one suitable solution for the project leadership task. It depends 100% on the general framework of the project. But once a leadership style is chosen and used, it is almost impossible to switch it without loosing credibility.

Project-hurdle: 4. Assure the right top management attention

In 2008 IBM Global Business Services realized a study named “The IBM Global Making Change Work Study” 3 which examined how organizations can manage change and identified strategies for improving project outcomes. As key factors for successful change there were identified intangible aspects of organization like leadership (92%), employee involvement (72%) and honest and timely communication (70%). These factors are obviously determined by organizational and formal aspects. Scientific studies, such as the above-mentioned, as well as practical experience in the management of projects confirm that setting vision and direction clearly, allocating resourcesand establishing corporate culture from the top is mandatory for the success of a project. To have a top management attention and a well informed company managing board can be crucial for the project work, if there is a need to escalate problems or to have things decided quickly. In case that the general framework of the project makes the use of an authoritarian leadership style necessary, the project needs a strong top management attention to ensure that tasks will be done at time and in the right quality.

Project-hurdle: 5. Clarify the objectives, the scope, the in- & out of scope and the expectations

Before the project begins, in the classical sense of project management, to structure the theme, to develop milestone plans etc, it is compulsory that the project leader defines together with the sponsor the objectives of the project, and that they clarify which issues should be part of the project and which should not be considered (in- and outframe). And this is true for absolutely any kind of project! For projects which have to be implemented due to national or European regulations, laws, political constraints, i.e. that have been initiated neither voluntarily, nor by economic thinking of the company, should the clarification of the assignment never be ignored or conducted in a negligent way. The main goal of projects of this type is of course already predetermined by the nature of the topic, e.g. "The implementation of EU regulation xy according to the law”. But the high aggregation level of this target usually doesn’t fit the needs of the project work. Does the project manager fail to fully clarify the project scope and its targets before the project starts; he offers a weak spot for arguments from project participants and colleagues who are trying to torpedo the project.

Project-hurdles: 6. Define the stakeholders, involve them in an early phase and don’t forget to communicate… to everyone!

The stakeholders of a big project include the top management, the managing board of a company, the steering committee of the project, the concerned departments and of course the staff. Depending on the type of project, stakeholders may also be state or economic institutions, associations, organizations and regulators, at national and European level. Before the project starts, it is recommended to create a stakeholder analysis to identify all stakeholders and to investigate their need for information and involvement. The identification of colleagues who can act as a "catalyst" for the project plays also an important role. The involvement of such persons may assist the project's success greatly, or, if opinion leaders are not adequately involved, represents a massive risk. After detecting all relevant stakeholders it is crucial to enable honest and timely two-way communication to build trust and commitment to the project and its leader and team, and reduce resistance. Therefore multiple channels and different media should be used. The project leader and his team should take time to understand the audience and how they like to communicate.

Project-hurdle: 7. Give your project the right structure

The way a project is structured by the project manager before its start, and depending on its objectives and expectations, it can play a major role in how it will function, because different styles of structure have different characteristics. When structuring the project, several major aspects have to be taken into account: objectives, tasks, structure plan, thematic work packages, roles & responsibilities, risks, milestones, deliverables and so on.


The project structure plan is the most important plan for your project! It is the basic document for the internal project communication in the project team because it is the basis for the project manager to assign work packages and to communicate them with the responsible team members. This increases the transparency of your project tremendously because each team member knows what to do next and what the others have to tackle simultaneously. A structure plan helps you to estimate and to control your project costs. It is indispensable to analyze and to manage potential risks concerning costs, performance and appointments without having a plan which breaks the

complex structure of a project down into applicable building blocks. The project structure plan is the basis for the time scheduling and the sequence planning which are very often presented in form of network plans and bar diagrams. And although structure plans are obviously crucial for the success of projects, they are still totally underestimated in modern organizations. A project is always something very unique and special. A project manager should try to benefit from all the great advantages of a welldesigned project structure plan. When building a project structure plan there are some essential aspects that have to be considered in the planning.


The basic building blocks of structure plans are called work packages, enclosed work units that can be assigned to a person.


Projects can be structured function-oriented or object-oriented, but the chosen approach can vary from project to project. Function-oriented project structures represent the progression of the project in form of actions that have to be executed and it is often deduced from the process organization of the company. Object-oriented project structures have just a different focus and consider the internal structure of the product you want to realize. The choice of an approach depends strongly on the kind of project. In most cases both structures are applied simultaneously.


After the structure is developed and in order to simplify the search for the right team members, the manager has to define the roles and responsibilities for every “box” in his structure plan (e.g. working group / work package leader, steering committee members, etc.).


There are two main forms of planning. The fist approach is top-down, which means to start the planning at the end of the project and to develop the subtasks and work packages until the beginning of the project. Project managers who are confronted with much unknown contents would probably choose the bottom-up approach by arranging workshops, where all relevant team members have the opportunity to take part with their special experiences by defining necessary actions and activities. The results are then concentrated and formed to work packages and subtasks afterwards.


Risk is defined as the possibility of suffering a loss, or more specifically, the possibility of a negative outcome that is assumed in order to pursue an opportunity for gain in the project. Risk is a part of almost every project. Risk management involves anticipating, addressing, mitigating, and preventing risks. Prioritizing risks enables the team to address high-risk items early. Some risks may be: lack of executive support; conflicts with stakeholders; lack of experience by the project team; many more, depending on the topic of the project. The project manager should develop a solution proposal for any identified risk, and discuss these proposals with the sponsor and the steering committee of his project.


According to the Business Dictionary, milestones are in general subobjectives or stages into which a program or project is divided for monitoring and measurement of work performance. Especially in project management they represent scheduled events that indicate the completion of a major deliverable event (or a set thereof) of a project. Milestones are measurable and observable and serve as progress markers (flags) but, by definition, are independent of time (have zero duration) therefore no work or consumption of resources is associated with them. So milestones refer to „project events “and major results. They represent control points in a project where decisions are needed; they should be used for verification of the planned results and steps in the project, and are also always connected to work packages. Milestones illustrate the expected date of steps, but if necessary, they can be moved on.


Deliverables are project results! Possible deliverables may be for example: reports like guidelines, masterplans, statistics, data in databases, trends, software (algorithms, codes, databases, systems...), publications in scientific journals, newsletters, or at conferences, media and so on. The project manager has to fix the type of deliverables with the sponsor and with the steering committee of the project.

Project-hurdles: 8. Celebrating success as motivator

According to Cunningham’s and Allington’s book Classrooms that Work, “Success precedes motivation and once children see they can be successful, they will participate; thus teachers must engineer success.” 4 But this rule does not only apply for children education - success is a great motivator in projects, too! In general, projects require from all participants a high grade of perseverance. Therefore the involved team members have to stay motivated through the entire duration of the project, especially if they are still highly involved in the day to day operations, to deliver high quality output. An adequate method is to celebrate little successes, like the in-time achievement of milestones. Celebrating little successes signalizes the appreciation of the project leader for his team.

Project-hurdle: 9. Documentation will „save your ass“- if necessary!

Documentation for high-risk projects should provide all of the information required to initiate, plan, execute, monitor, and complete the project in a timely and cost-effective manner. Every big organization has its own standards for documentation requirements. Otherwise, the documentation can follow the guidelines of the Project Management Body of Knowledge of the Project Management Institute. The documentation shall include: scope documentation, resource plan, communication plan, budget plan, status reports, minutes from steering committee and principal meetings and a final project report.

A detailed scope document should be included that clearly describes the project objectives and the project deliverables. Plans for scope management should be provided and include procedures for change control. The resource plan should explain what resources (people, equipment, materials) and what quantities of each should be used to perform project activities and it should provide a complete account of key or required staff. The communication plan should describe the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage, and ultimate disposition of project information. The budget plan should be appropriate to the needs of the Project Sponsor and should provide a complete accounting of costs for staffing, equipment, software, supplies, consulting, and other costs. The project manager also has to document all status reports of the whole project, of the working groups and work packages. Especially for high-risk projects, it is mandatory to document the minutes from steering committee and principal meetings, as well as those from international meetings, where relevant aspects have been decided. At the end of the project, or if the project manager changes during the project, it is recommendable to write a final project report which includes a short summary of the relevant project history and a recommendation about the next steps. Especially if there was a difficult working situation, where decisions haven’t been taken by the responsible or when the project team refused to work, this documentation will show that the project manager has done his work well and it will “save his ass”.

Project-hurdle: 10.Use High-profile Managers – and be one of them!

Leadership has been studied since the time of Plato and its importance has become even more significant nowadays, especially in companies and in managing projects. This is obvious, because “leadership” and “management” are not two different constructs, no alternatives – management always includes leadership. The success or failure of a company depends only on the performance of its managers, which are appointed to positions of power and authority and which are held accountable for the performance of their parts of the organisation. The managing director and the managing board of a company have responsibility for the overall strategy of the entire organisation, but managers at all levels have the responsibility to behave as strategists for their part of the organisation. Dr Nicholls, an international management author, consultant and trainer describes in his article “Managing to lead” 5 inter alia four different tasks, four essential beliefs and four ways of fundamental and simultaneous behaviour for so called high-profile managers, which separates them from managers who behave solely as administrators.

  • Routine administration
  • Supervising the direct reports
  • Providing strategic direction to the organization
  • Inspiring their employees to devote their full talents and energy

  • Engagement: give the feeling that the employees are taking part in the process and that they are not just powerless pawns
  • Mutuality of interests: place the best interests of the employees equal to any other objective
  • Insistence on participation: avoid any trace of enforcement and authority
  • Inspiration: turning people into enthusiastic followers by uniting them with a compelling vision

  • Administrators: to get things done by keeping the feet on the ground and doing the necessary, routine administration
  • Coaches: to get things done right by being hands-on to coach people as individuals
  • Strategists: to get the right things done by providing strategic direction to the organisation
  • Visionaries: to get all the doing done with enthusiasm by inspiring people to devote their full talents and energy

This has an important impact on leading projects in three kinds of ways: first, the project manager has to fulfil all the above mentioned qualities to make sure that the project will succeed; second, the principal and the members of the project steering committee have to be that way too - if possible, the project manager should search for the right promoters in the management level of his company; as well as third, the project manager should create enthusiastic followers by being visionary.

Closing with the words of Dr Nicholls: “Managers who succeed in using their hands and heads and their hearts will be highly visible in the organisation because of their dynamic, creative and inspiring behaviour”, or with the words of the philosopher Seneca: “It’s not because things are difficult that we don’t dare - It is because we don’t dare that they are difficult.”

List of literature

1. Julian Birkinshaw, London Business School, “Getting the right people on the right projects”; Source: http://www.managementlab.org/files/site/publications/labnotes/mlab-labnotes-018.pdf

2. Torbert & Rook, Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, in: http://www.participatory-leadership.com/Site/A_definition_of_Participatory_Leadership_.html

3. IBM Global Business “The IBM Global Making Change Work Study”; Source: http://www.majorcities.eu/generaldocuments/pdf/ibm_making_change_work.pdf

4. Richard Allington, Classrooms that work: they can all read and write

5. Dr Nicholls, “Creating a Committed Workforce”, published by IPM/McGraw-Hill (1987). Source article “Managing to lead”: http://www.managementlab.org/files/site/publications/labnotes/mlab-labnotes-018.pdf

ISMAN & Partner
ISMAN & Partner ist eine Unternehmensberatung, die nationale und internationale Konzerne, mittelständische Betriebe und Start-ups, Organisationen und Institutionen bei komplexen Verhandlungs- und Konfliktlösungsprozessen begleitet. 2015 von Calin-Mihai Isman gegründet, unterstützen die Experten für Negotiation & Mediation Manager und Mitarbeiter aus den Bereichen Sales, Einkauf, M&A, Contracting, HR oder IT.


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