The Real Secret Behind Project Failure

To the owner of a failed software project, there is little consolation that roughly forty to seventy out of every hundred other projects have also failed to meet their goals.

This sad math reflects a simple truth - delivering software solutions to hard business problems is, well... hard. Teams lacking sufficient technical skills are obviously doomed from the start. But a respectable lineup of developers merely gets you in the game. Projects making this first cut now must endure an onslaught of other challenges, from ambiguous requirements and unclear priorities to unrealistic schedules, poor communication, insufficient planning, and unmanaged risks. In other words, as a product owner embarking on a new assignment, the biggest threats to your success are not technical problems at all. At Relevance, we understand that software development is mostly a people problem.

This is why aside from employing an amazing group of developers, designers, and architects, most Relevance projects receive the direct attention of a Relevance coach to minimize the non-technical risks to your project, and to help great people accomplish great things.

So what exactly does a coach at Relevance do? A partial answer can be found in an episode of the Relevance podcast, but the conversation is sporadically interrupted by loud monkey noises (oddly not present at the time of the original recording). In true agile fashion we shall adapt and repeat, and our answer will focus on outcomes rather than activities. When clients ask us "What is the role of a coach at Relevance," we've found what they're really asking is "How will my project benefit by having a Relevance coach on the team?"

Saving you time and effort through efficient project management

As someone looking for a team to help grow your business, you've probably got a big problem, limited budget, and a tight timeline for finding a solution. And most likely you've got a lot of other very important things to do each day.

Once we kick off Iteration Zero, I like to tell clients they are now free to leave the engine room and snuggle comfortably in the captain's chair. As a busy product owner, having a Relevance coach on the job allows you to focus on the critical role of setting the course of the ship without the additional burden of monitoring and maintaining the complex propulsion, communication, and navigation systems required to complete your journey.

As an agile project manager, the Relevance coach saves you time and effort while achieving the necessary goals of transparent metrics, alignment between daily tasks and high-level goals, and protecting the unimpeded progress of the development team.

"But what if I have the project management expertise and time to devote to my project? Would I still want a Relevance coach on the team?"

For some projects, busy clients set broad targets and then connect with the development team for just a few minutes each day, trusting the Relevance coach as their near full time project manager. For others it may be a sliding scale of delegated responsibilities. For the most experienced and available clients, a Relevance coach serves to facilitate critical decisions such as changes to team priorities or core functionality. At these times, a Relevance coach enables the client to participate fully as product owner rather than project manager, to become an engaged passenger with someone else at the wheel until the matter is resolved.

There are also times where a Relevance coach will serve as proxy for product owners at both office and partner presentations, outlining plans and progress and gathering feedback for the team. Increasingly this role is extending to front line investigator and liaison with customers and executives alike.

Providing an objective perspective and minimizing risk

"I've spoken with other software consultancies who don't have coaches. Are their developers better than yours?"

This isn't about development expertise; it's about better overall outcomes. A Relevance coach on your project gives you a team catalyst, enabling a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. It means someone on your side with a dedicated, independent, and people-focused perspective - looking at the team and release in a different way.

Gil Broza in The Human Side of Agile describes the benefits of an 'agile team leader', though we believe a more accurate title is 'agile team enabler'. Broza notes that "by constantly observing the team's progress and learning about their hurdles, the leader can distinguish patterns, identify root causes, and stop small problems from growing into big ones." To accomplish this requires taking a birds-eye view of the situation, to focus on the big picture at all times.

"Why shouldn't one of the developers on the team play this role?"

Relevance developers are certainly capable of filling this critical role. At issue is whether this is the most cost-effective and efficient method to achieve your goals. Every moment spent by a developer preparing to facilitate a retrospective, discussing a shift in priorities with you, or evaluating upcoming staffing needs is a moment they are not delivering awesome software.

A developer in the role of coach would be by definition a part time responsibility. The "coach hat" and "developer hat" cannot be worn at the same time. To put their coach's hat on, a developer must temporarily leave the development team. Only computers are designed for multitasking. Human beings are only capable of switch-tasking, and switching between tasks is expensive.

Time spent context switching will come directly out of your project budget. Such teams can still be successful, but will have to be less efficient than those with a cleaner separation of roles.

As noted in "Resilience" by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, such "cognitive diversity" within teams has been shown to consistently achieve better results. Relevance coaches help developers and clients consider a wider range of options, raising previously unseen issues, and helping to guide the team out of jams when they occur. Software projects are inherently risky, and unexpected obstacles can rise up suddenly to block the team. Teams consisting of individuals with similar modes of thinking can excel when the path is smooth, but adding individuals providing alternative views has been shown again and again to catalyze better performing, more resilient teams that can adjust faster and more effectively to difficult terrain, dramatically lowering the risk to your project.

"Why shouldn't I play this role as the product owner?"

To answer this question, please note that one of the key players on the team is you. As the Relevance coach identifies strategies for better team performance, this includes an objective view of the actions and interactions between all team members, including the product owner and other client stakeholders at a level that would be extremely difficult through self-reflection alone. Similar to the developer's dilemma, to become a part time coach necessitates giving up your role as full time product owner. In which capacity would you provide the most value to the project and your business?

Stacking the deck in your favor

In its simplest form, having a Relevance coach on your project is a really smart and cost effective method of risk mitigation. On most projects I spend a lot of time both asking and answering questions, proposing plans and providing feedback, and uncovering inconsistencies in goals and execution. I facilitate resolution of misunderstandings and help frame difficult decisions. At times I play the role of counselor and trusted advisor to developers and clients alike, serving as both relief valve and sounding board. And I love it.

In the end, technical difficulties are rarely the cause of project failure. Project failure is really team failure. Teams are made of individuals, including developers, product owners, and other stakeholders. In theory, if each individual performs perfectly, the input (your problem) should produce the correct output (your solution). But these people are not just boxes on an org chart. Inside those hard candy exteriors each team member has a creamy human middle. Any friction in the system generates heat, and things get sticky.

Unless sufficient attention is paid to the machinery of the team, the smooth and continuous flow of information and intentions can become clouded and spotty. When this occurs, even highly skilled teams can become bogged down or burnt out and fail to reach their goals. This is the real secret of project failure, and how a Relevance coach can help your project be a success.