Why Projects Fail: A Simple Model for Project Teams


It’s common wisdom that a trio of  dimensions make up the context of business problems today: people, process, and product or technology.  I have a slightly different take: the three are not orthogonal but are, in fact, hierarchical.  That is:

Great people create great processes
which can be implemented by great product/technology.

In short, when someone tells me they have a process problem, my first concern is around the people creating and managing the process.  It all starts with people; create a team of very talented people and I assure you that you won’t have process and product/technology problems.

The bigger question is how to compose a team of talented people in such a way as the key roles needed to ensure success are all present.  To keep things simple, I contend that there are four project roles needed to compose a well-formed project team.

The Four Cs

1. Captaincaptain

As the title implies, Captains are responsible for guiding the project through the waters of bureaucracy, obstacles, and irrelevance.  Projects without strong Captains frequently lose track of their goals and either neglect to achieve anything tangible or create a lot of irrelevant busy work.   Captains must have and communicate a clear vision for project goals; further, they must be decisive in changing direction including potentially pivoting the entire project as discoveries and/or obstacles are met.

We frequently use the term “executive sponsor” to represent a high-level executive whose name is simply attached to a project and who is only brought in when needed.  A Captain is much more than that notion and must be involved every step of the way to ensure the project is guided to its destination safely.

2. Coordinatorcoordinator

The Coordinator is responsible for planning, orchestrating, and tracking progress towards the project’s goals.  It’s the Coordinator’s responsibility to know exactly where the project is, where it’s going, and how much work and time remains to get there.  A “project manager” might be a suitable moniker for this role and, in my experience, most companies have capable and willing project managers capable of serving as Coordinators.

The common issue, however, is when the Coordinator role is filled by someone deemed an expert in the project area and, because of their expertise, is asked to “lead” the project.  Coordination is a very specialized skill set that requires a rather organized, deliberate, and proactive person.  A project without a qualified Coordinator is destined to obscurity.

3. Consumerstk121464rke

Aaah, the role everybody loves to fill because, while it’s completely critical to the success of the project, it is the one with least accountability and fewest tangible deliverables.  The Consumer is the role that benefits from the output of the project; it’s for the Consumers that the project was created in the first place.  They understand the problem, know what they want, and have a lot of “asks” that must be met.

In today’s business world, people use words like “stakeholders” or “subject matter experts” to describe people who typically fill these roles.  As those monikers imply, they’re typically inputs into the system and are rarely responsible for outputs.  Consumers are responsible for making sure the projects’ goals meet their day-to-day needs and that detailed requirements reflect their reality.

4. Creatorcreator

Finally, I present to you the role everybody loves to forget: the Creator.  Why do they love to forget it?  Because it’s where all of the hard work lies!  The Creators are where the rubber hits the road: the business analysts who are responsible for creating documented requirements and specifications, the programmers in the IT department who must execute on changes to systems, the customer service representatives tasked with reaching out to hundreds of customers to communicate a difficult message, and so on.

All too often, creators are a minority on project teams and all that is achieved is a plan for how to get somewhere instead of the actual getting somewhere.  Creators should constitute at least half of a project team if the project is to accomplish something.  I’ve often seen large rooms of people filled nearly entirely of Consumers and Coordinators and wondered to myself: it looks like we have a large team, but will anything actually get done?

One Captain, three Coordinators, and seven Consumers is nothing more than an impressive-looking horde that’ll quickly bottleneck.  Give me instead one Captain, one Coordinator, two Consumers, and seven Creators and I’ll give you a successful project that over-delivers for a change!

How do you know which of your people are the ones to retain and who’ll help you succeed with projects and business in general?  Three Characteristics of Your Company’s Best Managers.

This post is featured on Wired Magazine‘s Innovation Insights.

5 thoughts on “Why Projects Fail: A Simple Model for Project Teams

  1. I happen to know an enterprise work management product that can take that failure rate closer to zero in full alignment with your observations. Just saying…

  2. Pingback: Against the Herd Is 6 Months Old: The Most-Read Posts So Far | Bassam Against the Herd

  3. Great post! Glad to see you’ve got your idea fully baked for your blog. This has been something I have been observing in my own life over the last year or so. Any tips for what to do when you find yourself in the combined CaptainOrdinatoReator role?

    • Ryan, I love the label “CaptainOrdinatoReator”🙂. All I can suggest when you find yourself in that role is to follow the great piece of advice on doing more with less: “The most effective way to do more with less is to do more on less.”

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