How to Prevent the Runaway Train of Client-Based Project Delays

Client-based project delays can feel a bit like a runaway train. Little hiccups that stack on top of each other will quickly build momentum. Before you know it, your project is no longer on track — which could lead to a major churnwreck.

A 2021 report from the Project Management Institute found about 12% of projects from those surveyed are considered total failures. And the numbers don’t bode much better for those who do succeed. They found that nearly half will fail to meet time commitments, 39% will run over budget, and 27% will fall short of some aspect of product delivery.

Proactive communication and end-to-end collaboration with your clients are key to anticipating — and preventing — client-based delays that threaten to derail your project. Here, we break down a few of the most effective ways to proactively communicate with your clients, and offer new solutions to old ways of thinking.

Focus on Collaborative Goal Setting From the Start

The way we think about goal setting isn’t working, and that’s because, usually, goals are conflicting with each other or simply not feasible. Typically, goal-setting happens independently, which exacerbates the issue.

Independent goals don’t work because, to put it simply, they’re not set collaboratively. When you and your client don’t align in the goal-setting process, it can cause major oversight errors that lead to frustration, confusion, and project delays. Some of the most common complications that arise include:

  • Not knowing if your goals compete with your client’s
  • Misunderstanding each other’s needs
  • No clue if each other’s goals are realistic or achievable

Establishing goals with your client requires you to approach goal-setting as a collaborative effort. Start by having a conversation with your client about their business needs, sharing where you think your company fits in. This way, both sides can determine priorities together as a team, receiving feedback along the way if any red flags arise. By explicitly asking to share the decision-making process, you’re establishing the foundation for a transparent relationship that builds trust and fosters understanding — making it easier to talk through issues that could lead to delays in the future.

Accurately Predict Project Timelines

“It’s difficult to make predictions,” the adage goes, “especially about the future.” Everyone knows that a strong project timeline is important, but few people know how to create one that actually ends up being reasonable, let alone helpful. The Project Management Institute found only about 50% of projects between 2011 to 2018 were completed on time, and approximately 55% were within budget.

That’s because a majority of the theories surrounding this topic haven’t changed much since the 1970s. Essentially, they suffer from the planning fallacy known as optimism bias, which refers to the tendency to under prepare for a risk we falsely believe will not impact us (like a time-based project delay).

Newer theories suggest maintaining strong data about project goal progress, timeline, budget, and past project performance is a better way to accurately predict project timelines. Maintaining a data-driven approach will give you a quantitative look at how you’re progressing and will let you more realistically gauge how much time you and your client need to succeed. This can easily be done with an online collaboration tool that allows both parties to log, monitor, and assess how a project is progressing.

Assign Project Roles and Responsibilities

Teams function better when all members have a common understanding of everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Mapping out who should do what and why with your client can help prevent project delays, letting you avoid:

  • Accidental overlapping of efforts
  • Moments of confusion
  • Gaps in accountability that lead to tasks not getting done

Keep both parties in the loop by building out a streamlined dashboard with clear, actionable steps assigned to owners. This should establish how, in certain terms, every element of the project will get done. This holds both parties accountable and constructs a roadmap for successfully completing your goals.

Track Progress in a Shared Space

Staying on top of your project’s progress is hard to do, dare we say impossible, without keeping goals and timelines in one shared space visible to both you and your client.

When people know what they’re responsible for and when, it boosts clarity on both sides about who’s going to get things done — plus, it gives a free license to bug each other when something’s overdue.

With Coordinate, you can make tracking projects a priority by creating collaborative checklists assigned to members of both parties.

Coordinate’s project management platform lets you create collaborative checklists, so you and your client can stay focused. Source: Coordinate

Tracking a project’s progress makes it easy to maintain accountability on both sides. It also helps you spot potential issues before they surface, which lets you be proactive in preventing project delays.

Shift From Reactive Check-Ins to Proactive Check-Ins

Checking in with clients has become a contentious subject. Some even say it’s time to kill the term from your vocabulary altogether.

But, really, scheduling check-ins is a vital way to ensure you and your client can build a good relationship. The difference is shifting away from check-ins simply for the sake of check-ins — in other words, reframe check-ins for process reviews, not status updates. Using that time to remind clients of upcoming tasks or nudge them to move on an action item is all fine and well, but those are all things you can now do digitally using a collaborative project management tool, like Coordinate.

Instead, adopt a proactive check-in model, using your face-to-face time to talk big picture. This method shifts the focus from discussing small details in lieu of aspirational conversations or brainstorming sessions that build up the relationship. It also becomes a perfect time to exchange feedback that might be difficult to share over Slack or email.

Taking the time to establish trust and foster understanding makes it easier to bring up potential issues as they arise and prevents larger problems from causing a delay.

Include Signposting in Your Communication Strategy

Signposting is a tactic to improve project management that gives signals or cues to help people follow the meaning of what you are saying. It’s also a way of organizing thought. Think about the term literally: If you post a sign that a road is closed, drivers know they can’t continue down that path and need to take a detour. You’ve shared the guidance they needed in order to continue on their journey.

In the context of client management, signposting is a proactive technique for giving guidance and direction to clients. It gives clients a heads up on action items they should prepare before key meetings and deadlines and points out any changes in direction. It is also a way to clearly demonstrate to your clients how deeply you anticipate their needs.

Incorporating signposting into your conversations can be as simple as the following:

  • “During tomorrow’s meeting, let’s take another look at the project scope.”
  • “Next week, let’s discuss KPIs and make sure we’re still on the right track.”
  • “I’ll follow up after our conversation with the deliverables we’ve just gone over. Please review and share your notes so we can incorporate your feedback.”

Project Delays Are Never Easy, but the Right Collaboration Tool Can Help

At the end of the day, some delays are inevitable. But, while it’s unreasonable to expect you’ll never have delays (and plays heavily into optimism bias), part of good project management is to have contingency plans in place in case they occur.

You can easily stop a client-based delay in its tracks with the strategies outlined above and by investing in a project management collaboration tool. These tools are designed to center your client and organize your goals, deadlines, and important notes all in one shared, easily accessible space. 

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