7 deadly project management sins to avoid when working with suppliers

By Chris Browne on

Despite hopes to the contrary, we continue to regularly hear about the failure or abandonment of all too many projects. There are no shortage of uncomfortable headlines in the press about relationship breakdowns, cost overruns and deliverables left undelivered. These stories seem to regularly top the bill, with recent statistics showing that over 50% of projects go seriously over budget and timescale, and I’m sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more that don’t fail outright, but which have to be shored-up, often at the cost of additional funds and resources, just to get to some sort of acceptable outcome. These trials and tribulations affect all sectors where large projects are undertaken – with the public sector usually getting the highest profile coverage. So what to do about it? How can things be improved?

In our opinion there are seven deadly sins of client-side project management that are most regularly committed and bear consideration. Avoiding them will dramatically reduce the risk of your project becoming another one of those headlines:

1. Setting unrealistic timescales

This is one of the big sins. The timely preparation, initiation and planning of a project is paramount to its ultimate success. This may sound like stating the obvious, but all too often we find project initiation is allowed to drift until the point when something absolutely has to get started. Early preparations and engagement with suppliers will give an awareness of likely lead times around projects so you can set expectations accordingly and design the plan for achievability, not simply to keep up with a pace driven by urgency more than reality. Imposing unrealistic timescales on suppliers simply takes away responsibilities they have in contract – especially if they have already advised that it should take longer than you may wish. Be led by your supplier as to what they can reliably achieve and try to work with that, and don’t forget, you’ve got to deliver quality results on your side too!

2. Committing insufficient resources

This is easily as big a sin as its predecessor and probably more common. Clients routinely underestimate the resources they will need to commit to the average project. This is perhaps no surprise, because the execution of such large-scale projects is not something they do on a regular basis. To not thoroughly review required resources before initiating a project is, therefore, a ‘stealth trap’ that many will inevitably fall into. It’s always a good idea to get prospective suppliers to set out exactly what their expectations are around client-side resourcing when tendering for projects. Further detail this out when you get to Preferred Bidder status and then make sure you can commit the resources and capacity to match the plan. If not, then revisit the timescales and don’t forget that if you need to put backfill (or frontfill) resources in place you will need to budget recruitment/procurement time and money accordingly. Whatever you do, don’t sleepwalk into a project which has no realistic prospect of being achieved, be this due to lack of key resources, capacity or time.

3. Creeping elegance – AKA ‘scope creep’

Arguably this is more likely in agile projects than in waterfall ones, but it can be damaging in any contractual scenario. Sometimes scope creep is a symptom of not having done enough preparation and diligence during the requirements-gathering stage prior to contract. Sometimes it’s simply due to poor discipline, usually on the part of the client. It can be good commercial news for the supplier because almost invariably there will be change or variation costs attached to any scope changes. It’s not good news for the client because it so easily muddies the waters over deliverables, priorities, timescales and contractual responsibilities – especially if the ‘add-ons’ are not formally change-controlled into the main contract. The moral of this story (agile or otherwise) is do the work to get clarity on what your deliverables really need to be, then stick to that if at all possible!

4. Underestimating the budget

We all know that any project budget should contain some contingency, but how much should be set aside? Like the sin of inadequate resourcing above, how do you work out what a robust project budget should be? Again, do the work as early as possible, engaging early with the market, networking with peers, seeking comparison with like clients to get as realistic an appreciation of the supplier-side capital and revenue costs and your client-side resource and the backfill/frontfill costs involved. If you’re not going for a full turnkey solution, then you need to factor in any other likely costs such as operating platforms, networking/comms costs, and so forth. Once everything that you and the team can think of is in the budget, add a healthy contingency – 25% is a good starting point – and check that the business case still works. When you get to Preferred Bidder, revalidate the budget again and re-factor the contingency based on a risk assessment of the bid. It’s hard, but it’s always better to set expectations early and come in within budget than to have to return to the Board, cap in hand and ask for more!

5. Stepping-in and acting as the expert

This sin is another ‘stealth trap’ which clients often unwittingly walk into. It is most commonly found in troubled projects, but can also occur in perfectly sound ones simply because of strong client-side personalities. Either way, the client taking over control of a project and directing the supplier almost immediately relieves the supplier of key duties and obligations under any contract. Even if things are going badly, the supplier must be allowed to be the ‘expert’ and must carry out its duties under the contract, even if it has to resort to third parties to help remedy matters (at the supplier’s expense of course). If the client steps in and takes the reins, then the supplier will have the defence that it was prevented from remedying matters because it was acting under express directions from the client. Don’t go there. Instead, insist that agreed deliverables are delivered and use those mechanisms in the contract and under contract law which oblige the supplier to properly discharge its duties. Avoid taking over the project unless your intention is to terminate it – in which case, take good advice first!

6. Inconsistency in the project team/key user availability

Hopefully you’ve set the project up with the right resources at the appropriate level of capacity to meet the agreed project plan. But then, all too often, things move on. People change jobs, take holidays or go on sick leave – or resign, and so on. Some of these things you can’t plan for, but there are some things you can try to mitigate. Quite obviously, the client organisation has to accept and commit to the project team being consistent throughout the project lifecycle – preferably from the start of the requirements-gathering and procurement stages. Staff churn in a project can be hugely damaging and cause serious impact on progress. Apart from that, there needs to be some careful thought put into how your key users and resources map into the project plan and whether there are any predictable pinch points, e.g. around holidays or workload which can be pre-empted and avoided or worked around. There’s nothing worse than being on the run-up to a major milestone only to learn that the key user who needs to do the acceptance testing is off on leave for a fortnight at the same time. Always ‘keep the radar running’ on what’s happening when, who’s needed for it, and where any gaps may be!

7. Weak governance and/or contract management

This is about acting as a professional, intelligent client. While we’ve said above that the supplier should be the expert at all times, that’s not to say that the client should just let the project unfold around them. Good governance and a strong culture of good communications, decision-making and action expedition is essential in order that both supplier and client-side co-operate effectively to ‘deliver the goods’.

There is no shortage of project and programme management models to adopt to good effect, so do so. A discipline which is often less widely understood and deployed is that of effective contract management. A blog of this length does not permit the coverage such a subject really deserves, but in terms of avoiding sins it is imperative that within the governance structure on the client-side there is someone who fully understands the scope, responsibilities and mechanisms available within the contract you have with the supplier.

Routinely, contracts get put to one side when signed and are not seen again unless in the event of a dispute. In practice, the contract should be kept live and used as a reference for ensuring full delivery of everything in its scope, the avoidance of scope creep and for those occasions where the supplier might need reminding of who is responsible for what.

Governance should have top-down commitment, appropriate, committed representation (client and supplier-side) and be making decisions on accurate information from the project steering group/team and the contract. Failure to pay attention to proper governance ensures that you are planning to fail!