Reflections on expecting the unexpected in projects.

If there’s one thing that’s certain about undertaking complex projects, it’s that not everything will work out exactly the way you planned. No matter how strong your project planning and project leadership skills are, unanticipated events are bound to occur. Unforeseen challenges will crop up and schedules may change — as may customer expectations and key project staff. Moreover, research suggests that, when problems do arise in projects, employees aren’t always candid about reporting the issues to senior executives.1

Big projects are full of complexity, risk and human emotions — and their outcomes usually matter a great deal to the organizations and executives involved in them. How can you increase the probability that the major projects you lead or sponsor go well? The Spring 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review contains four articles with insights into that question. In “Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management,” Tyson R. Browning and Ranga V. Ramasesh point out that many of the unpleasant surprises that occur in projects aren’t things that were actually unforeseeable; instead, many surprises stem from issues nobody bothered to think about in advance. Browning and Ramasesh then identify 36 circumstances that increase the likelihood of “unknown unknowns” in a project, as well as 11 tools designed to identify some of those unknowns before they cause problems.

Two articles focus on key roles in project leadership: the executive sponsor and the project manager. In “How Executive Sponsors Influence Project Success,” Timothy J. Kloppenborg and Debbie Tesch explain which executive sponsor behaviors are likely to have a positive impact on project outcomes. Then, in “What Successful Project Managers Do,” Alexander Laufer, Edward J. Hoffman, Jeffrey S. Russell and Scott W. Cameron explore how project managers are adapting traditional project management techniques to today’s fast-paced, dynamic environments.

Finally, in “Accelerating Projects by Encouraging Help,” Fabian J. Sting, Christoph H. Loch and Dirk Stempfhuber offer a fascinating case study about a German company, Roto Frank, that has developed a technique to encourage employees to ask for help when their work on new product development projects runs into difficulties. Sting, Loch and Stempfhuber conclude that this management technique improved project cycle time at Roto while also lowering costs associated with last-minute changes. What’s more, the authors argue that the help process Roto developed, if adopted more widely, has “the potential to accelerate projects in many environments.”

Martha E. Mangelsdorf
Editorial Director
MIT Sloan Management Review

References

1. M. Keil, H.J. Smith, C.L. Iacovou and R.L. Thompson, “The Pitfalls of Project Status Reporting,” MIT Sloan Management Review 55, no. 3 (spring 2014): 57-64.