Why projects fail

Every integrator has a few horror stories of projects that have gone awry. Paul Milligan finds out how you can minimise the pain and worry and keep clients for longer.

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“Everyone in AV has their own personal book of war stories to share at any given opportunity when put in a room together with somebody else about the things that go wrong.” This quote from Jason Brameld, technical director from integrator Torpedo Factory Group, astutely highlights one aspect of the job no integrator can escape. All AV projects have issues or difficulties, its unavoidable, the amount of pain you suffer can differ greatly from mild annoyance to all-out war. How you can mitigate issues and stop the pain before it happens or while it is happening has become a vital element of an integrator’s skillset.

Are the reasons why a project falls into trouble (or even fails entirely) always the same? It differs from project to project says Yag Depala, sales and marketing director for integrator Reflex. There are numerous reasons why he says, such as the client not really fully understanding what their own customer user requirements are. “We see this when there is a selected team that represents an entire organisation, their actual interpretation of what people require is actually a little different to what is in the mind of the user. That becomes evident as projects progress, and over time, as actual users actually get involved in meetings.” That can work both ways too says Depala, “Sometimes the issue is the integrator not fully understanding what the client wants and how they're looking to use technology, for example they may give you a brief which says we want to better collaborate but what does that actually mean? Does it mean remote participation and data sharing on a whiteboard? You have to get all that information.”

AV and IT have become so interlinked in the last decade yet are often run by two separate teams working for different companies. The communication between AV and IT teams has become vital for a project’s success, and a lack of it can cause failure says Brameld. “One of the common factors for why it gets really difficult at the end of projects now is if that commitment and communication with the client IT team isn't in place early on. Even if the AV contractor has delivered all of the information on all of their requirements, if the IT team ignore it or don't provide it or don't deliver on it, that will often cause an AV project to fail. It was easier when we were all self-contained and we didn't have to talk to those guys but these days we don't have a choice.” The reasons may differ from project to project, but there is a core as why they projects fall into difficulties says Peter Coulthard, director of bids and technical for integrator IDNS, and that core is communication and timescales. “Whether that's people not passing information on, or assuming other people didn’t need to know, or not passing it on in time or actually not giving it damn i.e. Well, I’ve got my part of the project done (painting walls etc).”


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Having unrealistic expectations of what your AV integrator can actually provide for you, and a suitable budget for what you want to achieve are two other major reasons why projects fail to meet their objectives. Even when the budget is sizable, unseen factors can also come into play to wreck things as this following example from Coulthard highlights. He was given a £500,000 AV contract but the installation was a listed building being merged into a new building. Fifteen redesigns later and the AV budget had been reduced to £200,000 because windows had to be remade and an archway couldn’t be blocked. “So we had to ask what functionality do you want to lose? They said we can’t lose any.” Sometimes being an AV integrator is an impossible job.

With years of experience behind you can you tell early on when a project is moving in the wrong direction? “You can often start to get a feel for it as you start asking for things to be done. And if they're not getting done, and you're having to chase repeatedly, time and time again, whilst all the time the project timeline is ticking away from underneath you, then that's going to be another clear indicator that you're likely to struggle at the end,” says Brameld. Not having a clear decision maker at the client end of any project sets alarm bells ringing right away adds Coulthard. “You see it in the first design meeting when you sit in front of them and you realise that you're not talking to the project manager, you're talking to the project manager, the head of the department, their assistant, the tea lady, and the caretaker. And they're all involved in the decision process. The caretaker wants it all in blue, but it must be eggshell blue, the tea lady wants the credenza over there so it's easy to take stuff across. Who is the decision maker here?”

Given the three integrators we spoke to have 30+ years of experience between them, what advice would they give others to stop projects falling into trouble? “I think the most important thing is to learn how to communicate properly and effectively and in a timely fashion, because the vast majority of the issues that I've seen on projects over the years, if you strip all of the personality issues away, fundamentally it comes down to communication, it means you won't have the thing on the wall you didn't ask for,” says Brameld. Some of the advice, such as this piece from Coulthard is more hardened, “Get everything in writing. Don't take anybody's word for it, get it in an email, get it in writing. If you've got it in writing, they're accountable.” It’s also vital to produce a detailed project plan he adds, “So that tasks on the project plan are allocated to a person or trade with the dates next to it, so that third party can be held accountable”. 

Getting a solid scope of works early on from a client that is as clear and concise as can be is really important in the project process says Depala, “And then make sure you've interpret that client requirement correctly, it does avoid a lot of pain as you go through the process.”
Putting together a detailed project plan is never going to be something you regret, but can it stop what seems like the inevitable firefighting late on? “Often we’re brought to the party late so the opportunity for detailed planning early on has already been lost,” says Brameld. “And then you have no choice but to charge at it with the blue lights on and the sirens going off, but I think if you do have the opportunity to get the planning in place you stand a much better chance of heading off the issues at the pass, at least everybody in the project team should then know what's expected of them.” Sadly, it’s not fail-safe as he adds this advice, “Whether they deliver it or not at the right time is a different matter.”

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Working as an integrator requires you to be equal parts therapist, mind-reader, and magician.  Something that came through in speaking to integrators was that as much of the job is about emotional intelligence as having technical know-how.  “There is psychology involved in project implementation,” says Coulthard. “The psychology is befriending people and understanding what makes the builder tick (timescales and budget). It’s also about understanding what makes the client tick (mostly timescales), but they also need to make sure it all works. It's about being the intermediary between the two, and arbitration between the two sometimes. It’s a bit of psychology and a bit of mediation.” Having emotional intelligence is not a one-size-fits-all approach however says Depala. “You have to take into account the type of characters you're dealing with. Project management is about managing people as well.”

No matter the age or experience or location of the integrator, whenever you speak to them they will always say this one thing; we are not engaged in projects early enough. Are clients aware this is a problem? Is it changing for the better or does the problem still remain? “In terms of earlier access to the projects, it's still quite variable, I‘ve not seen a noticeable improvement in it. AV sits within their procurement framework in in its place, and that's not really going to change. They're going to procure the people who dig the footings and pour the concrete first, and then they're going to procure the services, and then they're going to procure the building of the internal walls, AV always has to take its place in that procurement plan in that kind of environment.” Persistence in this matter does have it rewards says Depala, “We are getting involved early on in the process now because we keep barking on about it, even with our regular customers, they’ll always bring you're late into the programme but now they understand the value that we can really bring by getting us involved early, and we've been seeing that in the last 2-3 years.”  

The relationship between integrator and client is absolutely key to this whole issue. Once it has been established you can return to that client for repeat work (Depala says 70% of Reflex’s business is repeat business) with the trust and goodwill you have built up from previous mutually beneficial projects. But like any relationship, at the start things can be tricky and a little awkward until trust and rapport is built up. “If it's a new client there's no history. There are no preconceived ideas. You don't have to pussyfoot around; you can start as you mean to go on. Sometimes being too friendly can be a problem,” says Coulthard. Honesty is clearly a key pillar of any good relationship, but is there such as thing as too honest when it comes to clients? “Sometimes you have to temper the truth, we have to be the swan gliding on the water, everything's fine, everything is serene, but underneath the water its frantic as hell,” admits Coulthard. If mistakes happen or a delay is on the horizon be up front about it. “Keep in touch with them. It's excellent to go to them and say we had a problem but don’t worry we’ve fixed it, rather than we have a problem, but we don’t have a clue. Wait till you have the solution,” he adds.

What happens when something goes badly wrong? Are there some relationships that are just unsalvageable? “99.99% the time you can save it. Your reputation is only as good as your last job, and in universities it's very incestuous, they all talk,” says Coulthard. “There are times when we just have to agree to differ, we will always go that extra bit to at least differ, rather than just punch each other and walk away.” Sometimes when things go wrong on a project it's actually an opportunity to demonstrate to the client how good you are says Brameld. “Use it as an opportunity to strengthen and build the relationship because of how you dealt with it.”