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Most projects fail. By failure, we mean not on target, not on time and not on budget. But that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel before you even get started.

Project managers can draw inspiration from Muhammad Ali's signature line to beat the odds that seemed stacked against them.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Muhammad Ali

It’s sound advice for running a successful project. It’s the one-two punch that tells us to stay soft and aim hard at the same time.

You need to have both to get a project over the finish line, right: project managers must stay agile, be adaptable, and remain flexible while at the same time knowing our deadlines, staying on target, and getting buy-in.

Why Project Purpose Matters

But if that’s the answer, why do projects still fail? Well, there’s a second half to what Ali said that usually gets excluded and forgotten, but I believe it’s key to understanding why most projects fail.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.

Muhammad Ali Headshot

Muhammad Ali

It’s the same with projects. While the most common culprits for project failure are easy to rattle off—not enough time, not enough money, not enough talent, not enough communication—but it’s easy to forget the importance of project purpose.

If teams are swinging at something they don’t care about or don’t see the why behind, that lack of purpose can punt any project right into the grave.

In a recent article from McKinsey, a whopping 2/3rds of US-based employees said that the pandemic caused them to reflect on their purpose, half were reconsidering the kind of work they do, and three times as many millennials were scratching their heads and rethinking their nine to five.

infographic with data about employee purpose and wellness
Purpose is an important part of employee engagement and satisfaction.

If 70 percent of team members get a sense of purpose from work, but they don’t know why they’re throwing punches or what they’re fighting for, the team will wilt in the ring with less energy, less engagement, less satisfaction, and less productivity. This means negative outcomes for projects.

3 Ways PMs Can Instill A Strong Project Purpose

Project managers can take a few steps to ensure project teams have a strong sense of purpose:

  • Recognize the desire for a project purpose
  • Articulate the why
  • Set an example

Recognize The Desire For Purpose

Three-quarters of people get a sense of purpose from work. Most people sit down at their desks with the desire to contribute meaningfully, whether they realize it or not. Purpose drives people and a lack of it drains them. 

Next time you kick off a new project, look around and recognize that each individual is designed to work with purpose, and not only that, but when they do, their work outcomes are two to five times higher than when it’s missing.

Articulate The Why

If you can’t articulate the ‘why’ of a project, everyone’s set up to build aimlessly. As the project manager, you need to plant a powerful stake in the ground right from a project’s inception and ask that all-important and often-elusive ‘why’. And not just once!

infographic showing the importance of the project why
Ask 'why' multiple times to ensure you and the project team are clear on the project purpose.

The Harvard Business Review reckons that it takes asking why 4-7 times in order to get to the essence of why a project needs to exist. Without it, productivity perishes and success is sacrificed, but knowing why feeds motivation, filters solutions, and fuels momentum.

By getting to the bottom of why, your team will feel aligned and united in a defined purpose that carries everyone over the finish line.

Set An Example

Project managers need to be the example of purpose in action. If your team isn’t seeing it happening up top, there’s less of a chance it’s reflected down below.

In a survey of over 4,000 employees, Deloitte found, “More than 80% of respondents said it’s important for senior leaders to behave in line with their organization’s purpose, but only 55% agreed that they do.”

If you want more of your team’s energy, engagement, satisfaction, productivity and retention that comes from them feeling purposeful at work, you need to be the walking definition of it.

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What’s Next?

One way to increase the odds is through Mastering Digital Project Management, a program we built to equip you with the mindset, skill set, and tool set to lead projects confidently in the digital context.

In it, we explore best practices for aligning, planning and managing projects as well as your leadership style and how to be the example of performance you want to see reflected back from your teams.

By Dani Kreeft

Dani Kreeft is an author, copywriter and ghostwriter with 20 years of experience putting poetic power into print.