Hear This: Common Phrases That Undermine Project Success

9 phrases that mean trouble egg brink fall

During a technology initiative, the signs of trouble are not always clear. Team members can be working their hardest to complete their tasks, but somehow the project milestones keep getting delayed or redefined. Rarely do staff want to pull the emergency brake on a project, openly calling attention to major concerns, even if they are frequently discussed in private and impacting costs. (Read about the costs of struggling projects here >>) This is why it’s essential for leadership, managers, and staff to be aware of common warning phrases that can signal trouble is on the horizon for a project.

Obviously, these aren’t the only warning phrases, and team members may not use these exact words. Notice that similar themes underlie these statements, such as short-term resolutions, team disagreements, refusals to contribute, and refusing final responsibility. If you’re hearing these themes during a project, your project may be at higher risk of encountering deeper challenges or even failing.

Warning phrases that indicate increasing risk:

“We have always done it this way.” This is probably the most common signal that a project is faltering. It’s particularly dangerous because it can be uttered a hundred different ways on a hundred different small decisions and add up to one big waste of time. Resistance to changing how work gets done rarely leads to complete project failure, but regularly leads to lost time and money. Countless technologies have been implemented that result in little-to-no organizational transformation because they end up being used exactly how the old systems were used.

  • The Individual Antidote: If there is just one person who seems stuck in the past, it’s worth it to take the time to meet with that person individually. Digging deeper one-on-one might reveal why there is resistance. Often, people are afraid that their roles will become unnecessary or that they personally do not have what it takes to carry out the role in the new way. The only way to get to the root of that is by discussing it directly and coming up with a plan. In some cases, that person may truly not be in a position to adapt, and it may be best to support them in search of other opportunities – either within the organization or elsewhere.
  • The Team Antidote: If it’s a whole slew of people crooning about the good ole days, then it’s likely time to take a bigger step back and determine whether the organization has been properly prepared for the initiative at hand. Usually, if this type of resistance is widespread, there is either a larger cultural issue or there were simply some missed steps in communicating the goals, expectations, and benefits of the project. Either way, ignoring it will cost more in the long run than pausing to recalibrate, so it’s best to take the time to resolve before moving on.

“I don’t have time to participate in planning/requirements/testing. I’ll just learn what I need in training.” In most organizations, there are people who specialize in back office and operations support and there are people whose work is focused on relationship-building or service delivery. It is not uncommon for people in the second group to find the introduction of new systems as a hindrance to their work instead of a benefit. Have you ever put off getting a new phone or computer because you know it’s going to take you longer to get stuff done at first or because it’s simply annoying to have to get everything set up the way you like it? This is like that, but on a larger, more costly scale. Sometimes, it’s also a sign of fundamental misunderstanding about how new technology is supposed to help them. Either way, it’s a big problem for the project because planning solutions without input from end users is a sure way to find out it doesn’t do what they need.

  • Secure Leadership Assistance: In these cases, it is critical to reconfirm the goals and expectations of leadership regarding both the project and staff participation. It may be true that some staff members have too much on their plates to contribute meaningfully. Or it may be that the expectations for their contributions at this stage weren’t adequately communicated. This can almost always be addressed, though sometimes we find that those at the top don’t appreciate the value of end user input. For whatever reason, people are sometimes more receptive to external recommendations; if that doesn’t work, it may be necessary to extend the timeline for testing or plan for iterative fixes to the tools after launch.

“This shouldn’t be so hard.” This is one that often comes up during testing. It’s close cousin – “This used to be easier” – is probably muttered hundreds of times in the weeks following any launch. Sometimes this just means that the person is not yet used to the new process. But other times, it’s a more ominous sign that people expected things to be different than they are. It is not uncommon for people to assume that technology’s sole purpose is to make our lives easier, when in fact, most of today’s CRM systems allow us to engage with our constituents in more effective and impactful ways, but not every step will be simpler.

  • Focus on the Positive: Too often, the reflex for someone on the project team is to explain (maybe even argue) why the new process is not actually any harder than the old process. This is rarely comforting to the person struggling in the moment, and risks embarrassing them. A better approach is to redirect the focus to the benefits that come from adopting the new process. Take the time to talk through the bigger picture and the specific ways in which the new system will help this person be more successful. Then, go back to the task at hand and go through it in context, demonstrating why the steps involved help achieve the greater goal.
  • Articulate the Benefits: When possible, make sure benefits for each area of the organization are clearly articulated (and rearticulated) throughout the project, so that end users are excited by the possibilities by the time they test out new functionality. It may also help to let people know that they are adding to their own personal skillset, which is good for individual career trajectories. Learning something new will still be hard, but it is much more tolerable when we understand what’s in it for us.

Are You Hearing These Phrases?

If you start to recognize these phrases and themes during your project, don’t worry, all is not lost and your project is not doomed to failure. As long as you don’t ignore them, you can get back on the path toward success. When you identify the root causes of your team’s concerns and address those issues directly, things can often get back on track. You may be surprised to find the main issues could stem from easily identified and resolved sources of resistance. Inconsistent communication, unclear goals, and fear of the unknown can build up during a chaotic and challenging initiative, but can be successfully resolved when identified and addressed in an open and timely manner.

Contact Us

Project management industry studies reveal that more than half of project resistance could be avoided using effective change management strategies. If you feel your initiative is at risk, Heller’s certified change management specialists are skilled in identifying and reducing project resistance that arises before, during and after implementations. Since each organization, and each change initiative, is unique, Heller offers a variety of change management services to ensure your organization successfully achieves your technology vision. Our services have clearly defined deliverables tailored specifically for nonprofits, and are coordinated to match your project phases. We can join your in-progress initiative to advise and realign teams that are showing signs of resistance and increasing risk.

Learn more about the services we offer here, or contact us to learn how effective change management strategies can support your project’s success.



About the author

Catherine Moore

Catherine enjoys enabling business transformation through human, technical and business process innovation. With over 15 years in the nonprofit sector, Catherine has experience setting strategic direction in technology, marketing and fundraising. Most recently, Catherine championed innovation within the Canadian Cancer Society at the national, provincial and local levels as a senior leader. She led change as a catalyst and by continually seeking and leveraging new and emerging technologies to facilitate deeper engagement with the Society’s constituents while transforming business processes for efficiency.

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