Image: Chris Potter/Flickr Image: Chris Potter/Flickr

Did you know that more than 70% of business-critical programs are unsuccessful? They either fail to meet their original objectives or collapse altogether, causing significant financial loss that for some companies is difficult to rectify.

It keeps happening, too – businesses end up in a repetitive cycle of frustration, too interested in finding someone at which to point the finger to realise their own mistakes. And, as we all know, identifying mistakes is the first step in avoiding them.

With that in mind, below are some of the biggest obstacles to overcome – the common causes of program failure, and a little bit about how to avoid them.

The truth is ignored

As simple as it seems, accepting failure and the reasons for it is one way to make immediate progress. Too many managers and project leaders go straight into justification mode when a program fails, doing what they can to make sure blame can be attributed to something or someone.

The problem with this is that nothing is ever learned. Through eagerness to avoid confrontation and awkward conversations over the boardroom table, you end up completely missing the real reasons for the collapse. Then, when the next project rolls around, you’re no better equipped to get it right and the same happens again.

It’s not advisable to sabotage a program for the sake of learning, but when something does go wrong – and it will at some point – see it as an opportunity to optimise the process.

Governance isn’t taken seriously

A program governance model, as explained here, details the intention of a program and the value it’ll deliver upon completion. It describes how everything will be achieved too – the operating and decision-making processes, and how the team will work together.

Contrary to popular belief, the creation of a program governance model is not just a formality to be ticked off the to-do list and forgotten when the ‘real’ work begins.

By not taking this part of the process seriously, businesses are throwing themselves into the strategy and execution stages blind. The roadmap is blurry at best, with no transparency and very little honesty - it’s a recipe for failure.

Gaps exist between strategy and execution

Not enough businesses realise that strategy and execution demand the same levels of attention. They either spend too much time planning only to realise they’re not ready to pull it off, or they neglect the preparation and wonder where to go when the practical work begins.

Not only should strategy and execution be treated equally, the transition between the two must be smooth. It can’t be that one team works on the strategy – perhaps because they’re available at the time – and then another is expected to pick up the baton to execute. The managers involved early on, for example, are not too important to get their hands dirty later. If anything, the opposite is true: they’re too important not to be involved.

If you work hard on the plan – as you should – trust it in the execution stage. It’s no use dedicating valuable resources to strategizing only to fall back into old and damaging habits later on.

Everyone is afraid

Everyone wants their program to have a huge impact on the business, and that will always be the aim, but be realistic about what can be achieved.

All too often program managers have big ideas that don’t match the size of their business or the resources it has at its disposal. A complex multi-faceted project will be too much for a small team with limited time to offer, so don’t just assume they’ll cope – the cracks will show quickly.

The trick is first to know which big questions to ask, and then to answer them honestly. “How big is this project?” “Does my team have the necessary skills?” “How much time can we dedicate to this?” “Do we need external help?” If you’re constantly just answering with “It’ll be fine,” chances are it probably won’t.

There seems to be a real fear of failure within most businesses these days, but it’s this fear that so often causes everything to go wrong. It gets in the way of honesty and causes program teams and their managers to expect more than they can possibly achieve.

While standards need to be high and people should be expected to work hard, the program processes – from strategy to execution – must be open, transparent and above all realistic; otherwise, failure is inevitable.

By Graeme Parton, brand journalist, Mentor Europe