Expert Interview Series: Todd Williams, Project Recovery Expert, About Proper Project Management Training and Preparation to Help Avoid Project Failure

Todd C. Williams is a project recovery and execution expert who helps executives achieve their business goals. We asked the president of eCameron to elaborate on turning struggling projects around and safeguarding projects against failure.

Fixing Failing Projects Found Me

My career goals never included becoming a project recovery expert. Honestly, it still isn’t. I had a unique background in electronics manufacturing, project management, and technology when a couple of factory automation projects fell into trouble in Taiwan. A week later, my family and I packed up for a nine-month, action-packed, cultural adventure abroad. From that moment on, I had a big R (for recovery) stamped on my forehead.

That assignment was an amazing educational experience. First and foremost, I had to add cultural awareness to my toolbox. Projects create change, and how people process change is based on their surrounding culture. As I developed that skill at work in various cultures, I quickly realized that it is the lynchpin in project success. Simply put, culture – national and corporate – is the first problem to tackle on every project; business needs are second, project management third, and technology is last. Unfortunately, many projects are run by technology-focused people, and getting them to think about people, culture, and change is a challenging feat. However, it is job number one.

Starting With the End in Mind

Stephen Covey has a very simple rule that seems hard for people to grasp: start with the end in mind. Projects have one goal, and unlike what most technologists think, it is it not implementing technology. Its goal is implementing a change. If you fail to start a project with that core concept, it will most likely fail.

Change guru John Kotter has eight steps to running projects that executives, middle managers, and project managers should follow to ensure change (and the project) is successful. These steps are:

  • Create a sense of urgency.
  • Build a team.
  • Create a vision.
  • Communicate for buy-in.
  • Empower action.
  • Create short-term wins
  • Don’t let up.
  • Make it stick.

When focusing on these steps, project leaders will see huge improvements in project success rates.

To achieve this, you need continuing education in culture (social and corporate), change management, and leadership. These are the tools that most project managers, middle managers, and executives are missing. This training will be valuable in business and your personal life in order to help you understand how to help people through any change.

Not All Failures Need Recovery

Developing project recovery techniques is not the right answer. The right answer is keeping projects from being beset with troubles to begin with. The best formula for success I can prescribe is understanding the people and culture, knowing the business you work in, having the right level of process, and – only when that is all in place – turning your attention to technology.

There is a fine line, though, between failure and success. If you are creating something truly revolutionary, you are going to have the occasional failure. Some of those turn out to be like 3M’s failed super glue failure that gave us Post-it Notes© and Pfizer’s failed angina medication, sildenafil citrate, better known for its pesky side effects and rebranded Viagra©.

Many failures should be chalked up to education. They should be spotted early, and no one should ever try to recover them. There is a lot to be said for people saying, “Okay, that was a bad idea,” canceling the project, and cutting losses.

If failures comprise more than, say, 10-15% of your projects, then hiding behind the statement that “This was a good education” is weak and very expensive. This failure rate says there is something wrong in your company’s approach to project execution. Never solve it by training more people on how to fix failures. Identify the organization’s gaps and fill them. Ask for an audit or health check. Assess your capabilities from the CEO down to the project methodology. Tweak how you approach projects to improve your success rates.

Where is the Balance?

There is no one answer that fits all projects. If a project is going to fail, though, you want it to fail fast. We provide a process health check to assess the corporate project structure and culture to determine what certain aspects of the organization can change to improve the project outcomes. These focus on educating everyone from the CEO to project team members on working on the “right things in the right way.” The audit looks at your risk profile, examines failure rates, and educates you on how to change the organization to make projects provide value regardless of their outcome. That education is crucial to your company’s competitive advantage.

Looking for continuing education courses about culture, change management, and leadership? Check out our open courses today!

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