In working with hundreds of companies for over two decades, we’ve encountered several common themes where improvement is needed to avoid delays and achieve faster development. The obvious factors for increased speed are scope reduction and additional resources. The latter is rarely viable, and to be effective, resources need to be available early enough in the project lifecycle. That leaves scope reduction as the concession that is often viable, but unappealing.

The root of most delays are inefficiencies, with many contributing factors including some that are hard to quantify. This article describes the common problems we see frequently, with tips for how to recognize and make improvements.

1) Inefficient Communication: Theoretically, communication challenges should be more significant with larger teams, yet small teams often have horrible communication. My personal belief is that management takes communication for granted as something all educated adults know how to do well, with no need to make improvement a priority. Aside from effective use of communication tools, facilitation by leadership is needed to ensure communication promotes rapid progress rather than causing confusion that slows it down.

How to recognize – Surveys are a good way to discover team member perspectives that aren’t already known. Either as part of a team satisfaction survey or as a stand-alone question, ask every team member to rate team communication, such as, “On a 1-10 scale how satisfied are you with communication within your team and across cross-functional teams?” Make the surveys anonymous, if needed to increase participation.

How to improve – If a survey is used, an open-ended question can be included like, “What communication improvements do you think would be helpful?” That will give team members the opportunity to contribute solutions. What should always be in practice is leadership accountability for facilitating great communication. It should be part of every team leader’s job description and performance evaluation.

2) Unmanageable Priorities: Two levels of prioritization affect projects and impact individual productivity – business priorities and project priorities. At  both levels the common problems are:

  • Too many top priorities – team members don’t have the capacity to manage effectively
  • Unclear priorities – team members don’t know the relative importance of work items, so they prioritize to suit their preference
  • Conflicting priorities – team members are getting different direction from multiple leaders
  • Changing priorities – priorities change so often, team members make little progress on any project
  • Wrong priorities – team leaders don’t really know what has the most value, so they make something up, often resulting in changing priorities

How to recognize – Leaders should honestly assess their contribution to unmanageable priorities and realize the necessity for team member focus. The only justified issue is frequently changing priorities, and is only justified when it’s truly the nature of the work, such as sustaining engineering, rapidly changing markets, or rapidly changing business conditions.

How to improve – Implement top-down strategic priorities starting with the project portfolio:

    • Projects prioritized 1-to-N based on business value
    • Project-level strategic priorities 1-to-N based on customer decision factors, key requirements and/or business value drivers
    • Detailed customer/stakeholder needs prioritized 1-3, 1-5  or 1-to-N, depending on quantity to prioritize
    • Work items prioritized 1-3 or 1-5

Agile methods, when implemented effectively, facilitate clear priorities across multiple projects and for each individual project.

3) Inaccurate Planning: Two major factors contribute to planning inaccuracy: 1) inexperience with project estimation methods, and 2) pressure to plan timelines to match unrealistic expectations.

How to recognize – At some point in the project everyone realizes execution isn’t close to the project plan.

How to improve – First, team members need to be proficient with project estimation methods. A combination of top-down, analogy, Delphi, best/worst case and other methods should be utilized. Generally, two or three of the most practical methods should be used with a system for leveraging results for the most realistic planning. Secondly, team leaders need to push back when expectations don’t align with reality. This is easier said than done when customer and/or management expectations are unrealistic, but not aligning to reality isn’t doing a service to any stakeholders in the long run.

Agile methods help increase short-term predictability, and can aid with longer-term estimation using methods such as burn-up charts to supplement  forecasting.

4) Ineffective Dependency Management: What often happens is either too much detail in a tool like a Gantt Chart identifying so many dependencies it becomes unmanageable, or too little emphasis on identifying major dependencies resulting in no chance for proactive management. Whether your way-of-working is waterfall/sequential, agile or a hybrid model, critical path identification at the right level of detail enables teams to manage major dependencies that drive project timelines.

How to recognize – Major dependencies are realized too late for mitigating the risk of delay.

How to improve – Use an agile framework for product development that ensures dependencies are cross-functionally managed and risks are addressed on an iterative cadence.

About the Author

Gary Hinkle is founder and principal consultant at Auxilium, a company dedicated since 2002 to helping product development organizations develop leaders, improve processes, build stronger cultures, and increase overall R&D performance. You can contact Gary directly here.

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