I was chatting with some co-workers of mine today on Project X and the discussion turned to: Why is our project having so much trouble completing all its goals? The answer that I came up with is structural, and drove this blog post.
In short, here's how to structure a project for failure.
Step 1: Create a project with goals A, B, and C. Fund it reasonably to accomplish those goals.
At this stage, everything is working very well. Proceed to step 2!
Step 2: Involve more than one person in the management and direction of the project.
This step takes many forms. Sometimes it's a committee or board that runs the project, other times it's reporting to multiple bosses and/or centers for guidance. Either way it's critical to ensure that there are at least two people with differing priorities, all of whom have some sort of say in the project.
Step 3: One of the managers adds goals D, and E. No additional funding, or insufficient funding, is provided.
Eventually as your project is initially successful, someone in the management chain will identify things they'd like done which seem a lot like other things you're successfully doing. It's awfully tempting to add this to your project, as you already have skilled workforce performing similar tasks, and they DID see you reading Reddit that one time so clearly you're not all 100% working 100% of the time.
This is the critical stage in project failure - because now the staff has insufficient resources to continue the work.
Step 4: Shoestrings and Duct Tape.
In this stage, the project lacks the resources to fully perform tasks A,B,C,D and E but has no strict prioritization. They either internally prioritize, fully fulfilling A,B,C while shoestrining D and E or, more often, shoestring all the priorities equally. Now they're doing all of the jobs, but at least some and most likely all of them poorly.
Step 5: Management disagrees over prioritization.
In this stage, the project staff have brought up their troubles to management. They can't proceed with the amount of funding and tasks they have to accomplish, and they either need less tasks or more funding.
However - and this is the critical keystone in the bridge of fail - each of the individual managers begins to insist that their priorities are the reasonable ones, and that no extra funding is needed if you'd cut the other guys' stuff.
Manager1: You clearly have enough resources for A,B,C. D and E are unimportant. Therefore, you don't need money.
Manager2: You clearly have enough resources for A,D,E. B and C are unimportant. Therefore, you don't need money.
.... And so on.
The key thing here is that individually each manager is being completely reasonable about their expectations from your project. But collectively, they're being completely UNresasonable.
Step 6: Saving throw vs. Morale
At this stage, the staff executing the project begin making monthly saving throws vs morale. Unless management either provides more resources or less work to do, they stand an increasingly likely chance of having critical staff get fed up and leave for greener pastures. IF management turns things around at this stage, the project can still be saved. If not.....
Step 7: It's too late.
Beyond this step, it's probably too late to save your project. Even if management gets things turned around with funding and expectations, at this point you've lost too many key staff and your project has too poor a reputation internally to recruit anyone good to come back and work on it. Project: Failed.