8 Questions to Determine the Root Cause of Poor Project Performance

By Allan Watton on

To promote better productivity through more collaborative problem-solving it would be useful to shift perspectives, so that when things go wrong people recognise that it’s not always the other person’s fault. Often issues are multifaceted, and the longer that they are allowed to build up, the more difficult it can be to establish the root cause of the problem – usually a good place to start when looking to find an appropriate solution to poor project performance.

When lacklustre performance plagues your project it would be advisable to not immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be the vendor’s fault, or that it’s even their problem to solve. We need to take a more holistic approach, a more collaborative approach to determining the cause and an appropriate solution.

The Root Causes of Poor Project Performance

This article looks at eight fundamental questions to ask when seeking to determine just why poor performance has taken a hold on your project. These questions will identify who you need to speak to and to help you gather all the evidentiary data needed to find the true source of the problem and just what impact their action or inaction has had, in order to find a way forward.

Question 1: Were your business outcomes clear enough at the outset?

Where business outcomes have been unclear, it can lead to misunderstandings. A good starting point is almost always to go back to the beginning. Can you say with hand on heart that you did all you could have done to create a business case for your project that clearly identified the outcomes you would expect, alongside the specific benefits you would gain? Did you communicate these objectives clearly enough to reasonably eradicate ambiguity, and did you check that the vendor completely understood what you were asking of them? If not, this could be a weakness that could at least partly explain a vendor’s inability to meet your expectations and one they could exploit in discussions about poor project performance.

Create a list of all the issues you have with your vendor’s performance record on the project, be specific, and check whether a lack of clarity in your business objectives or communications could have contributed to any of them. This is the start of identifying how best to handle approaching the other side to determine a suitable solution.

Question 2: Were your business outcomes incorporated clearly in your written agreement?

Once you are clear on what you wanted – and what you said – it’s important to determine whether what you ‘agreed’ reflects this. Carefully review whether your written contractual agreement contains clear and specific instructions rather than vague goals.

While not the be-all and end-all in a project dispute, what is in your contract, whether it was signed by both parties, and its clarity, are all important vehicles for identifying who is responsible for the situation you now find yourself in and how best to establish a resolution. Whether you negotiated from scratch, accepted a vendor’s standard terms wholesale, or adapted them at the outset, will impact on how easy or difficult it may be to renegotiate or rework the document to put your relationship and the project back on track.

Become a contractual expert, know its strengths and weaknesses, know who is responsible for what, and place this against the list you created when answering question 1.

Question 3: What costs have you incurred as a result of the poor performance?

Poor project performance discussions are an emotive undertaking and you will need to weigh up the options of bringing it up or not, based on the cost of not discussing the matter and the risk to the relationship of discussing it against realistic benefits of pursuing such a course.

Therefore, quantifying the costs that have resulted from your vendor’s lower than expected performance is imperative. Consider all the costs involved, from both their actions or inaction and the efforts required to resolve the issues that ensued. At the same time, try to understand whether any ‘on the ground’ actions from your own people have in fact driven up these costs.

Question 4: Who is responsible for what – advice, performance and management?

Your intimate knowledge of your contractual agreement gained through answering question 2 will help you to decipher who was responsible for what in your relationship. When you look at the list of issues in answer to question 1 and the costs they created in the answer to question 3, you must now determine what everyone’s role was, what their responsibilities were, and what advice was acted on to create this relationship model in the first place.

It can be embarrassing to point the finger at someone only to find out it was actually your responsibility to do what you are blaming them for, or that it was your actions that led to the situation. Either way, clarity here through an understanding of contractual responsibility, and the source of advisory guidance overlaid on the issues of the project will provide vital evidence for seeking a resolution.

Question 5: What does a good solution look like?

The point of the four questions preceding this one is not predominantly to build a case against your vendor – it’s to understand more fully what has passed and why. Now we need to start to investigate how best to get the project back on an even keel, to identify what a good solution might look like, and to seek to rebuild trust.

If you have identified issues that originate from the vendor’s side then a conversation based on facts and meticulously gathered information is likely to be far better received than seemingly baseless accusations and threats of financial penalties, no matter how within your contractual rights you may be. If you are going to put the project back on track it will take a strong trusting relationship, so any discussions need to keep this firmly in mind.

Handle this part correctly and you may be able to improve productivity and garner compensation and/or additional promises of closer cooperation.

Question 6: Are there any other factors to consider?

Over and above the questions already discussed, there are a few more general factors to consider.

  • Could time pressures, lack of experience, negligent due diligence, insufficient resources or poor clarity on either side have contributed to the situation you find yourself in?
  • Has clear and prompt communication continued to include issues that have arisen since the launch of the project, or has a lack thereof resulted in one or both sides being unaware of problems until they have escalated out of control?
  • What is the state of your partnership relationship currently, and why is it in that state? Have you shown clemency or a firm hand? The current state of your relationship will have to be considered in your approach to a conversation about poor productivity.

Question 7: Have you sanity checked your evidence?

Would your view of blame and responsibilities stack up to external scrutiny? If you took all the evidence, paperwork and promises to an expert third party to review, do you believe that they would come to the same conclusion as you?

The essence of this question is to root out any lack of clarity or bias that may have crept into your logic and position, but in reality it is often advisable to do just this. An independent third party expert can sanity check your evidence, and this alone can boost the credibility of this evidence, and your own credibility, to ensure the clarity of your information should this unfortunate situation escalate to legal action.

Question 8: Have you a clear means of communicating your issues?

Plan your meeting. To go in unprepared could increase the likelihood of misunderstandings and increased tensions rather than the development of constructive solutions. The clarity of your issues gained from answering the previous seven questions will help you evidence your side of the discussion, and to enter with an idea of how you would like to see the matter(s) resolved also shows professionalism and gives you a better chance of negotiating a positive way forward.

Explain that you wish to rebuild trust, that you are looking for a resolution, not an escalation, and set out wishes and a time frame for redirecting the project towards its original business objectives.

Rectifying Poor Project Performance

Such negotiations will likely be tense and require a delicate touch, but clarity of information and forethought of the solution will give you the best chance of success. There are, no doubt, many more questions that can be asked, but we believe these to be the foundations of a generic plan for resolving poor performance disputes in strategic partnerships.

For more information about identifying and handling poor performance in your outsourced projects, or to find out more about our 8 Steps to Improving Outsourcing Performance, click to download our eBook.


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