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How Business Analysts Can Help Failed Projects Succeed

I recently completed a post-implementation review for an enterprise-wide project I managed that successfully achieved all its objectives. The client was very happy with the results and all stakeholders agreed the project was executed very efficiently and implemented with no negative impact on the organization’s regular operations. The best part? The project had been attempted twice before but had failed and been aborted both times. We were able to overcome the previous failures and deliver essential capabilities needed to prepare the organization for the future.

Overcoming previously failed projects (or ones that are near failure) can be challenging. If a project has been tried before and failed, a negative mindset towards the project can be established that presents a barrier for future success. Some companies may even convince themselves that they don’t really need what the project set out to accomplish. Luckily, business analysts can play an integral role in overcoming these challenges and ensuring the project is successful in its new incarnation. Below are the key areas where BAs can enhance the likelihood of success.

Understand the Reasons for Failure

As the often-used adage goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In order to avoid the same fate as the previous failures, you need to understand the reasons why they failed and learn what needs to change in order to succeed. Business analysts can perform root cause analyses on the previous failures and work with the project’s leadership and stakeholders to see what lessons can be learned. This can involve everything from document reviews to conducting interviews and assessing solutions currently in place. Some of the key areas to assess are:

  • Organizational: Did the project have the wrong people involved on the project from the leadership and the executive sponsor through to the project team’s personnel?
  • Cultural: Did the organization not have the right attitude towards the project or enough collective belief in its potential to succeed?
  • Technical: Did the project fail because the wrong technology was selected or built? Did the technology have insufficient capabilities to support what was needed?
  • Procedural: Did the projects not follow appropriate standards or methodologies to increase their likelihood of success? Were there critical errors in the execution or omission of certain tasks (for example, insufficient communications, ambiguous project planning or improper project change controls)?
  • Environmental: Was there something that occurred or was present in the organization’s market or political environment that made the project’s success untenable?
  • Iron Triangle Factors: Were the finances, scope and timelines originally set out reasonable, or were some of these factors inappropriate or too hopeful given other constraints?

Recognize What’s Changed

Once the root causes are identified, the business analyst can develop proposed approaches to avoid, eliminate or address the issues that caused the previous projects to fail. Part of this planning exercise should involve assessing and documenting which of the above factors have changed. For example, personnel changes with key stakeholder areas may have shifted the cultural attitude towards the project. Or perhaps the marketplace has changed and the need to accomplish the project’s objectives is more acute than ever.

For each item where there has been a material change, document whether the change has increased or decreased the likelihood of the project succeeding as well as if the project is now more or less needed as a result. Aggregate these results and use them to assess whether the time is right to go ahead with the project once again. Sometimes, not enough has changed to really improve the project’s chance of success. Provided the business analyst is involved in the new project’s early stages, this should be highlighted to management to help them decide if the project should be undertaken at this time.

Adjust the Framework

Review the scope and objectives of the previous projects and assess what components are still needed today. Where possible, remove items that are no longer necessary or that greatly increase the probability of failure. Some items may be able to be deferred for a future phase once the project has demonstrated that it can achieve some initial successes.

From a business analyst’s perspective, this can entail reviewing requirements, project charters, plans and close-out documents, and organizational strategic plans. The BA may also perform a current state assessment to determine if any of the previous project’s objectives are already met. Based on an assessment of what matters to the organization today, the project team can adjust the framework for the new project to increase the chances of success.

For my recent project, we removed all ‘nice to have’ elements from the scope to focus on the critical components that needed to be completed. This not only reduced the cost and timelines for the project, but also increased the ability for the project team to communicate the vision and nature of the project to the entire organization since the objectives were more concise. This in turn improved awareness and buy-in from all stakeholders.

Win Over Skeptics

Clearly communicating why this project’s outcome will be different than the previous failures will help address the natural tendency to be skeptical about resurrecting a failed project. Ideally, the project can be reframed in the current context so that it can be considered fresh in the minds of key stakeholders, while still demonstrating the lessons from previous failures will be used to make the new project successful. Stories are an excellent way to help convey this message in a simple but effective format.

For a previous project I needed to show the organization’s leadership why they should re-initiate a project after it had failed. I communicated to the organization’s leadership how critical the project was to future high-priority endeavours. There were over 15 initiatives they were interested in pursuing that all depended on the successful implementation of the failed project, which was easily communicated using a hub and spoke diagram. Additionally, the organization’s mandate had begun to shift, which increased the need to ensure the project was tackled again. I used analogies representing their typical customers to show why it was important to get this project completed. These helped the leaders see the need for the project and give it the green light.

Business analysts can also highlight the need for a project on the ground while they are performing their current state assessment. As pain points are identified, stakeholders often begin to realize the need for change.This can be reinforced when the pain points are summarized and communicated to all groups.

Get the Commitment Needed for Success

In order for projects to succeed, all the key players need to be committed to its success. This means that leadership needs to be active and visible throughout the project and are willing to put in the time needed to help guide the project through its lifecycle. Sufficient funding for people and technology needs to be in place as well. The people who will take the project’s outputs and ultimately realize the benefits of the project need to also be committed to working through the process even when challenges arise. Overall, a coalition must be built that will be responsible for working with less enthusiastic stakeholders to keep the project from losing its momentum.

Business analysts play a key role in this aspect throughout the project by maintaining an up-to-date and relevant stakeholder analysis. Sometimes the attitudes, influence and engagement of various stakeholders can change over time. When BAs interact with stakeholders, they can continually update their analysis and work with the project’s leaders to address changes that could negatively impact the project.

Achieving Success Through Business Analysis

Business analysts play a key role in helping previously failed or challenged projects reach the finish line. The ability to understand why something went wrong, what to address from the failure, how to adapt to changing circumstances and how to engage the right people and get them on board are methods that good BAs possess and can leverage in this situation. Instead of fearing a previously failed project, business analysts can look at the opportunity to use their skills to ultimately bring the project to a successful close.

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