How to Lead Successful Projects


By Katya Forsyth, CA

Why are projects so hard to get done? By now we should know how to successfully complete projects. Shouldn’t we? But as we get more tech savvy, we seem to be getting worse at managing change. Because change still involves people! According to a recent study by McKinsey, only 37% of companies reported successful implementations. The key ingredients to being successful remain the same, but fewer people are doing them.


So, if it feels like your company is stuck in the mud and can’t get anything done – you may be right! 

What’s going on, and what can you do differently?

McKinsey is full of smart people, and their study says leaders need to do these 3 things well to be successful implementing change:

  • Own the change
  • Prioritize the Change
  • Track the Project


Well that sounds good, but what do we actually NEED TO DO? 

In my experience here are some areas where things often go wrong on projects that FAIL.

Own the Change

  • Define the Problem – Do you know what’s broken?  Sounds so easy, but often leaders jump to solutions of symptoms without defining what the problem is. You need to understand the root cause. A project is unlikely to succeed if you don’t know what problem you are trying to fix.
  • Deal with Poor Leaders – If you had lousy leaders before, you will still have those same leaders making decisions after. A shiny new system won't make poor leadership decisions any better. If you have leadership issues, deal with them.
  • Empower your team – Most stupid processes exist because someone with authority said “do this” without thinking it through, and the staff didn’t want to get in trouble by disagreeing. If you tell your team to do something dumb, will they push back? Do you encourage continuous improvement? Listen to your teams – they know what is going on.
  • Communicate often – Collaboration across teams is hard. You need to keep the team aligned on the end goal, so the right compromises are made for the greater good. That means communicating often! You need to know who will be impacted by the project, and keep them informed on what's going on, even if they aren't on the project team. (The RASCI Matrix can be useful here). If you want change to be successful, you can't communicate too much.

Smart Leaders find the root cause of a problem before trying to fix the symptoms.

Prioritize the Change

For a project to be successful – obviously you should put the right resources on the most important prioritiesBut what are those exactly?


  • Do a Gap Assessment – where are you now, and where do you want to be in 3 years? Then work backwards. I like 3 years – it’s just long enough to get you to be strategic, without being so long range that it’s not real.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Every business thinks they are unique. They’re wrong. Almost everything has been done before – it’s not rocket science (unless you work at Tesla. Even then – probably lots of ideas you can reuse!) Take the time to do an external assessment. What have your competitors done? Look at other industries. What is best practice? What will work in your company and culture?

If you can implement a solution that has been successful elsewhere, you increase the odds of a successful project for your team.

The solution doesn't need to be unique. It needs to work.


The people who will own the project or the system after it’s complete should do theplanning. Seems logical doesn't it? This obvious step is often missed. Projects are a great opportunity to develop staff – so it's a win-win. That only works if there is some extra capacity in the system. If not, back-fill the most junior work so that everyone can grow and develop, at the lowest cost.

So who needs to be on the project team?

  • Experienced leaders – you need people who have done this before or at least have some relevant experience
  • Strong players from the business and IT – don't accept the B team!
  • Engaged Executive Sponsor who talks softly and carries a BIG stick
  • Big egos need to be checked at the door

If the project isn't important, why are you doing it? If it's important, put your best people on it.

Project Tracking – The not so sexy stuff!

The weekly project update meeting. Usually the most boring meeting and the one everyone skips the minute they have a valid excuse. If people are skipping the project meetings – it’s probably because they are USELESS!  Project meetings don’t have to BORE everyone to death by repeating the same admin stuff over and over, and never actually bringing up the real issues.

Here's what a REAL project status meeting should include:

  • A strong Project Manager (PM) who understands the project, is empowered and respected. Without this, don't bother with anything else. A weak PM won't be able to put the feet to the fire when needed.
  • Empower your PM’s to call out anyone who is holding up the project – all the way up to the CEO. (politely of course!)
  • Meeting attendance is mandatory, including the Executive sponsor. If someone can't attend, they send a delegate who is accountable to make decisions.
  • real review of the status of priority items, and any issues/risks holding up the project.

Plan your work and Work your plan. It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done!

The Project Success Cheat Sheet:

  • Find the ROOT CAUSE of the problem first
  • PLAN the work with the people who will OWN it
  • Don't REINVENT the wheel – someone has already done this
  • Put the A team on the project
  • Invest in STRONG Project Managers

If you would like to learn more from an experienced CFO, take notes from this article from one of our own clients. Original artical can be found HERE

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