Most of you might be familiar with the goal setting process SMART. Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. There are also many other interpretations for SMART. However, still so many personal or project goals are not met. According to Worldbank studies and my personal experience more than 50% of all international projects fail. This means they suffer either from substantial cost overruns or delays and therefore do not meet their specific goals.

The SMART rule alone is not sufficient since it tells you just how you should set goals but not what you have to do so as to really achieve them. After developing and managing more than 90+ Multi-billion projects I concluded that neglecting of a few rules for proper goal setting accounts for one of the major reasons why so many projects fail.

Here are a few additional lessons learnt from the development and management of large projects that are applicable not just for project leaders but also for those who set and would like to achieve personal goals.

Have first a goal. When I meet people who are frustrated, depressed or making statements such as “ I am never successful”, I ask them: “What is your specific goal and what would you do if you were given all the power in the world”. Most of their replies indicate that they have no clarity concerning a specific goal. Therefore, clarify first of what you really want, get as specific as possible and take related initiatives. Forget about your doubts and fears. Do not try to be perfect. The quest for perfection holds too many people back from starting a (personal) project and achieving great things.

Clarify your personal motivation. The first question is whether your personal values coincide with the nature of the project. It might be that you are asked to run a project in a developing country whose objectives clash with environmental or cultural issues. Sooner or later you might run into an ethical dilemma slowing down your personal performance. Do you feel passionate about the project? Many people assume roles they do not like or the task ends in a 9 to 5 job. If you feel really passionate and you identify yourself 100% with the project nature you are more likely to overcome any barriers.

Set your own heart-driven goals. Many goals managers are supposed to meet are often set by other people. The budget discussion at the beginning of each year for example follows a typical pattern: lengthy discussions and in the end the boss sets goals nobody agrees on. We often hear the excuse: “We just have to set an arbitrary figure so as to meet the budget process.” Such goals are doomed to failure from the very beginning. Or when it comes to setting personal goals we often tend to copy other “more successful” people.  Goals you really want to achieve should be driven by your personal purpose and a vision inside you.

Align the goals of all your stakeholders. I was often under flak when implementing a power project in foreign countries. Clients, project managers, NGOs, the government, they all might have different goals within the framework of executing a project. Most clashes occur since the parties involved have different goals. Get to know the values, needs and intentions of the stakeholders. Align them and make sure that all of them fight for a higher cause.

Set stakeholders on fire. When I am appointed as a mediator for settling large conflicts I often see the following picture: All fight for their own – often ego-driven goals – and nobody is talking about the real goal – namely to run a project on time and budget – anymore. The first step towards settling such a conflict is to set all stakeholders on fire by creating a joint vision. Rather than saying: let’s build a power plant on time and budget, I state: “We deliver power so as to make the live of 100’000 people better.” I rarely see such vision statements within projects but they have an enormous impact on the overall motivation and change completely the mindset of people.

  1. I see too many managers coping with too many tasks. Focus is the golden prerequisite for being successful. When it comes to leading projects you have to focus on 3 relevant tasks: Connecting, collaborating and communicating. These 3 major tasks account for 80% of your true success. Focus also means that you are willing of going the extra mile: Whenever you face a major barrier, do not give up and start with another task or project but move ahead and focus on the goal you want to achieve.

Do not set realistic but ambitions or even visionary goals. I have often seen people that were not truly motivated to achieve a goal because the goal did not ignite the fire inside them. Make sure that you “shoot for the moon”, find a higher cause so as to motivate yourself and your people.

Adjust your journey not the goal. I set goals, take initiatives and run. And when I fail I adjust my initiatives but never the goal. I often realize that I have not taken enough actions or I did not ask people for advice or help.

Visualize your goal. I am not talking about creating mental pictures and hoping that one day a vision gets fulfilled. I am talking about creating models, drawings or presentations you show to stakeholders so that they understand of what you would like to achieve as a team. Real pictures say more than 1000 words.

Break a big goal down into smaller junks. Large projects running for years have the tendency to burn the team out. Make sure that you break and end goal down into smaller chunks and milestones so as to keep up momentum.

Avoid scope creep. Especially large projects suffer from scope creep. Clients and stakeholders adjust goals all the time. As a consequence the team gets demotivated and leaders lose credibility. The major reason for scope creep is that many project sponsors shy away from investing enough in pre-feasibility studies or investigations because they believe they can save money already at an early stage. But they do not admit that they have the biggest leverage for influencing overall cost and completion time at any early stage of the project.


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