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6 Reasons Projects Fail and What to do About It

Before we can dive into the reasons why web development projects fail, let’s start by defining what “project success” really means. 

What is Project Success? 

Most experts agree for a project to be considered successful it needs to:

  • Be completed on time, and within budget 
  • Result in an end product that fully meets the agreed-upon business requirements 
  • Retain the developing party’s planned profit margin 

If any of these points are missed, the project should be considered less than 100% successful. When you can consistently achieve all of these metrics on ALL projects, you will very likely have a successful agency. 

Seems like an impossible dream? I assure you – it is not. The key is understanding the common challenges that stand in the way of that success and using proven project management techniques to overcome them.

Why Our Community Ignores This

The website development community in general, especially home-grown WordPress agencies, is typically focused on 3 things:

  • Technology – What is the best (and coolest) tool for getting the job done?
  • Associated Services – What other services, such as SEO, copywriting, sales funnels, and the like, should we be offering?
  • Building/Scaling – How can we grow our business?

While these are important, most people don’t realize that successful project management is the mechanism that keeps your profit margin on target by keeping a close hold on the scope, cost, and timeline.

The 6 Primary Reasons Website Development Projects Fail

Reason #6 – Not Considering Project Risk 

A risk, with regard to project management, is defined as an occurrence you think might happen – and if it does, that occurrence will impede the project in some way. 

Most website providers try to pretend as if everything will go as planned all of the time. The truth is though –  it just never happens that way. What happens if your lead developer gets sick? What happens if you, a solopreneur, lose power for a week due to a storm? What happens if the client disappears mid-project?

The actual risks to project success will always vary from project to project, but there is at least one risk that exists on EVERY project: when the client or a 3rd party does not comply with the schedule (usually around content-related activities). If you don’t have a plan to mitigate (or address) this risk, your project will most likely fail.

Solution: Develop a Risk Mitigation Plan

Your proposal or contract should include a Project Risk section that lists the risks to the project, and how you will address them if they occur. For example, you might state that “team member illness” is a risk. Your mitigation plan may be that you have an equally talented person to fill in, should that happen, so there should be little to no impact on the project. When it comes to the content collection, you might state that “non-adherence to the agreed-upon schedule” is a risk and as mitigation, refer to your contract section regarding delayed and abandoned projects.

Assessing and planning for potential risk increases the likelihood of completing the project on schedule. Reviewing your project risk assessment with your potential client during the proposal phase also sets you apart as a true professional, and who already has a PLAN should things go awry.

Reason #5 – Performing Unpaid Work

There are two primary reasons website providers can end up carrying out unpaid work, thereby reducing their profit:

  • Not implementing a paid Discovery session
  • Not charging for changes as a “good faith” gesture 

Solution: Charge for Discovery and ALL Requirement Changes

The 2-Step Proposal Process we use, and also teach our students, is to operate under an initial contract that includes a range estimate to be fleshed out during Phase 1 – Deep Dive Discovery. After we’ve finished the deep dive, we provide a more precise estimate that includes any new requirements discovered along the way, and a “go/no go” decision is made.

  • If the decision is GO – we continue on to Phase 2 under the newly contracted estimate.
  • If the decision is NO GO – our client receives their website specification, and we get paid for all the work we performed to date. Everybody ultimately wins.

Many practitioners believe that throwing in a feature or two at no additional charge is “over-delivering” or a “good faith” gesture. Sometimes the team does this of their own volition because they “think” the client will like some cool feature (this is called gold plating) but most often it is due to the client asking for “one more, little thing”. 

The problem with this approach is that once you do any work for free, the client will continue to expect it. It can also mean that a lot of tiny “good faith” gestures add up to a LOT of free work given away – and of course, much loss of profit

It’s best to develop a solid change control process and educate your client about this very early on. The two most important rules regarding creating a good change control process are:

  1. NO work is performed, or feature created, without written, client-approved requirements. That typically puts a stop to gold plating and the related loss of profit.
  2. The change control process is invoked without exception because unmanaged scope creep is reason #3 that web development projects fail (see below).

Implementing these practices to avoid performing unpaid work not only helps keep your project within budget, but also helps to retain your planned profit.

Reason #4 – Poorly Defined Requirements 

Incomplete or incorrectly defined requirements are usually due to jumping into the design of the website way too early, instead of giving proper focus to the results that are to be achieved.

Many practitioners have a brief pre-proposal meeting, present the proposal, and then begin designing without a more in-depth discovery session. This happens for a number of reasons, but most often because either the development team is anxious to get to the “fun” part, or everyone is approaching the website as “art”, and not as the marketing tool that it is.

Sadly, once you broach the “look and feel” of the site with the client, most find it difficult to focus on anything else and, try as you might get back to the functional requirements, it is like pulling teeth and will slow progress.

In other cases, it’s a matter of lack of experience and knowing the right questions to ask.

Solution – Use a Checklist and Break Things Down

Inside the WP Project Manager’s Academy, we teach students to:

  • use our exhaustive pre-proposal questionnaire as a launch pad for ensuring you ask the right questions to offer a proper estimate
  • break down the deep dive discovery into multiple deliverables, each of which builds on the previously-approved deliverable
  • position the deep dive discovery as Phase 1 to ensure you’ll get paid for the activity.

Conducting the in-depth Discovery in this way will ensure you delve deep enough to uncover all the requirements – and that you get paid for doing so.

Reason #3 – Unmanaged Scope Creep 

As previously mentioned, scope creep is most often due to the client asking for small changes over and over again, and the development team agreeing to implement them at no charge. Often, when all those small changes are added up, a significant loss of profit margin is the result.

Solution: Actively Manage Change

Believe it or not, you can completely eliminate scope creep from your list of project challenges by acknowledging with your client that project change is inevitable, and having a solid plan in place to manage change. You will also need to ensure that you invoke your change control process without exception.

To do this, you will need a change control process that, among other things:

  • Includes a change budget
  • Explicitly defines what constitutes a change
  • Defines who can approve the change
  • Specifies when change requests will be paid by the client

Managing change in this way ensures that the end product meets the agreed-upon requirements, you get paid for all you do, and the project is completed within budget.

Reason #2 – Inadequate Estimating 

The biggest mistake web agencies make in this area is providing too precise an estimate too early. Many will do this after only a brief discovery session with the client, and this almost always ends up with an estimate that does not reflect the actual scope of work. You need a deep dive discovery for which you get paid (see #4 above).

You’d be surprised how many practitioners use a “best guess” approach to estimating based on their belief of how long the entire job will take, multiplied by an hourly rate. This is the crystal ball approach to estimating, and almost always results in project failure.

Solution – Develop a Repeatable Estimating Process

The truth is, to get better at estimating, you need to practice. The more you do it, the better you will get at it, but only if you analyze each project to determine where you missed the mark. The best way to get started is to use a Work Breakdown Structure or Project Plan that lists all the Phases, Activities, and Tasks. When you do this, you’ll likely be surprised how many things you are actually doing for which you have not been charging the client.

Start at the task level, and estimate the time you believe each task will take, keeping the following best practices in mind: 

  • Estimate the magnitude of content to be collected, created, and organized, and ensure your client can commit to the necessary tasks.
  • Be sure to include all administrative tasks, such as preparing status reports and meetings with the client. 
  • Consider who exactly will be completing each task and estimate accordingly (clients may take longer to write content than a copywriter).
  • Roll up the Task estimates to the Activity and Phase levels to devise the overall project estimate.
  • Explain to the client that any estimate is based on the requirements known at that time, and could change depending on whether the requirements change.

Reason #1 – Project Delays Caused by the Client

Most website providers who complain about clients not meeting the scheduled dates always mention content collection as the biggest bottleneck. This can result in delayed or abandoned projects if not managed properly. 

Solution – Educate, Incentivize, and Penalize

Most clients do not understand what is involved in a website development project – even though they may think they do. If that is the case, it is YOUR job to educate them. You can do this by:

  • Including this type of delay in your Risk Mitigation Plan
  • Reviewing a rough order of magnitude for the content – this can often convince the client to have someone else create and gather content
  • Collaborating on the due dates for the tasks the client will complete
  • Including in your proposal and other project documents:
    • Turnaround times for reviews and approvals
    • Incentives for meeting the agreed-upon dates
    • Penalties for missing the agreed-upon dates

By developing a process for a content collection that includes these best practices you significantly increase the likelihood of getting your projects completed on time.

Conclusion

Just as there are proven reasons projects fail, including completing the project over budget, delivering the solution late, producing an end-product that does not meet agreed-upon requirements, or ending up with a lower-than-expected profit figure, there are proven processes to circumvent those issues. These include:

  • Ensuring projects are completed on time and within budget, by developing a Risk Mitigation Plan.
  • Avoiding losing profit as a result of carrying out unpaid work, by developing a paid discovery process and having a solid change control procedure.
  • Increasing the likelihood of a quality end-product, by using a checklist for questions and breaking the discovery into multiple, separately-approved deliverables.
  • Minimizing loss of profit due to scope creep, by actively managing change.
  • Consistently completing projects within budget, by developing a repeatable estimating process that uses a mathematical formula.
  • Reducing delays caused by the client, by making sure you educate them on the importance of meeting the agreed-upon dates and offering incentives for doing so.

If you’re interested in learning how to consistently deliver successful projects using these proven processes, I invite you to consider joining the FREE WP Project Manager’s Academy and earn your WP Project Manager’s certification to set yourself apart from the competition.

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