Nine Ways to Protect a Project - And Project Manager - From Failure



project-team.jpgAs any experienced project manager knows, there are many things, such as scope creep and budget issues, that can go wrong when working on a project. When these problems inevitably arise, all heads turn to the project manager for a solution. 

The best way to solve these issues is to prevent them from happening in the first place. By having a structured plan with the right tools, the project - as well as the project manager - will be protected from failure. 

To ensure your future projects don't fail, follow these key steps:

  1. Make a project charter. First and foremost, when beginning any project, create a project charter to explicitly outline the key aspects of the project. Define what you are signing up for, as well as what you are not signing up for, and identify what resources are needed and where they will be coming from. Most projects require a sponsor, or someone to make decisions and allocate resources. Doing this will provide a clear, concrete description of the project scope, making it nearly impossible for issues of ambiguity to lead to failure. This will provide the project manager with ample protection, as they can simply refer to the project charter if these challenges arise. 
  2. Identify relevant stakeholders. Before you begin, ask yourself, Who will be impacted by the project? Recognize stakeholders up front based on the level of interest the individual has in the project, and the power they yield to either help or hurt the process. Strategies should then be developed to ensure all stakeholders are adequately involved and listened to. Keeping stakeholders involved in this way will minimize the possibility of arguments arising related to miscommunication or being left out.
  3. Consider all risks. Initially discussing risks could prevent you from crashing into them later. For example, a labor shortage could create an obstacle for the project if you have big ideas but no one to execute them. Similarly, unpredictable trade tariffs could pose a challenge for gathering necessary materials, as it is not possible to know when resources will be most affordable. In a similar vein, protect yourself from doing at-risk work throughout the duration of the project by having stage-gates, or tasks that must be approved before moving forward with the project. For example, if you are making a part for a client, make sure they have approved all characteristics such as size and color before production begins. For an extra layer of protection, get all approved aspects in writing to avoid problems down the line.
  4. Assign responsibilities. Many project managers run into problems when team members use the excuse of, "that ain't my job," to try and get out of doing work. To prevent this from happening, clearly assign all project responsibilities using visual tools such as a RACI diagram. This diagram assigns all tasks to individual workers according to the categories of: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. This proven method establishes who is responsible for what and holds team members accountable at each step of the project. 
  5. Document everything. Assumptions lead to problems. Documentation is potentially the most critical step a project manager can take to protect themselves. From the project charter to decisions related to overtime and funding, capturing everything in writing is the most effective way to sidestep miscommunications or poor assumptions that could lead to your project's demise.
  6. Prioritize communication. To avoid having to repeat things, create an effective and efficient Communication Plan. This should involve more than just emails and include all relevant people in order to protect the project manager from wasting time or oversharing (or under-sharing).
  7. Track and measure Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Measure your project progress by tracking KPIs weekly. These metrics might include how many tasks are complete, how many parts were accepted the first time, how much rework was involved, etc. This information essentially serves as a compass for your project to point your team in the right direction for success. Without this, the team will be lost.
  8. Be prepared for change. Change is nearly inevitable. However, many project managers fail to have a system in place to respond to such change. This can be solved with a Change Control Board, or small committee that approves changes and ensures the project stays on task and on track for completion. With this committee in place, managing change is no longer the project manager's direct responsibility as they are just the messenger and therefore protected from any backlash or issues that might follow change.
  9. Discuss lessons learned. Once a project is completed, reflect on important lessons learned. Document which clients changed their minds five times, why a month was lost doing the drawings, why you went over budget, etc. This reflection protects future projects from facing the same challenges and allows the team the ability to look back at previous lessons learned for help. Post-project discussions also can recognize positive lessons learned and help teams repeat what went well, such as providing lunch to workers or allowing overtime.

While it may be impossible to guarantee a project will be completed without any issues or challenges, having these aspects in place will provide extra layers of protection to your next project. From there, it's up to the team to lead the project to success.


stauffer_r.jpgRob Stauffer, Senior Lean, Costing & Project Management Consultant
Rob Stauffer has been a Program Manager in The Center's Lean Business Solutions program for 10 years. He has trained and mentored Michigan companies in the entire portfolio of Lean Sigma strategies and methods specializing in financial analysis, costing, strategic planning and Lean applied to the healthcare industry. He also works with clients on product development, product launches, transactional office processes and sales of technical programs.


Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

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