Cobb’s Paradox

Cobb’s Paradox states, ‘We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?’  PMI has recently published its latest Pulse of the Profession survey which shows some improvements on the 2008 and 2006 results but not much. Nearly half the projects surveyed in 2010 still failed to meet time and cost targets.

However, the PMI survey did highlight a stark difference between high performing organisations with a better than 80% success rate, and low performing organisations with a greater than 40% fail rate. And, the survey also clearly showed the processes typically used by the high performing organisations (and ignored by low performing organisations) are straightforward to implement and use; they include:

  • Using standardised project management processes.
  • Establishing a process to mature project, program and portfolio management practices.
  • Using a process to increase project management competency.
  • Employing qualified project managers.

Most of these elements coalesce around an effective project management office (PMO). Simply by standardising project management processes, the survey shows an organisation can expect a 25% increase in project success.

None of this new is new, KPMG demonstrated exactly the same point in its 2002 and 2003 surveys, supported by similar findings by PwC in 2004 (see:

What’s worrying me is the large number of organisations whose middle and senior management are simply failing their stakeholders by not implementing these simple pragmatic steps. The question that should be asked is WHY?

The stakeholders whose rights are being ignored include the owners who have a right to expect efficient use of resources entrusted to the organisation and the people employed on the failed projects whose work life is made unnecessarily stressful.

As Deeming pointed out in the 1950s, quality is a management responsibility. Therefore, allowing poor quality project management processes to exist in an organisation is a management failure. To quote another mantra: quality is designed in not inspected in. Workers and project managers cannot be expected to retrofit quality into defective systems; systemic failures are a failure of management.

What makes the situation even more worrying is that the tools to develop a quality project management system are readily available. Models such as CMMI, P3M3 and PMI’s OPM3 maturity model has been around for years and are regularly updated.

PMI has recently moved to improve the availability and support for its OPM3 Self-Assessment Module (SAM). This basic assessment system is now sold and supported by organisations such as Mosaic that are qualified to deliver the full range of OPM3 services and help businesses achieve the best return on their investment (for more see: OGC have similar arrangements for P3M3 as does CMMI.

So, given the tools are available, the knowledge is available, and the value has been consistently demonstrated; why are organisations still prepared to squander $millions on failed projects rather than investing a fraction of that amount in simple systems that can significantly improve the value they deliver to their stakeholders?
I would be interested to know the answer.

9 responses to “Cobb’s Paradox

  1. I don’t have the answer. However, I think it has something to do with our definition of failure. We (project managers) measure success in terms of benefit viability: time, cost, and scope. If the project is delivered late it’s deemed not to be a success. Unfortunately, failure is not in the vocabulary of many executives. They will nearly always declare a project successful even if costs have overrun, it’s late, and some of the expected benefits were lost. So I guess where just not talking the same language. If we were they may just listen.

  2. You are absolutely right on the different measures of success (and value delivery, see: The bad new is that most executive surveys also see around 50% of their projects failing. This ranges from GAC reports in the USA through OCG, to most surveys of business in Europe and Australia.

    The measures are different, the results similar.

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  4. You are absolutely correct, in saying nothing much has changed.
    From a personal view having run many big projects is that although the Client or The Contractor Management’s know that they will need to plan and schedule the work, it is not seen up front as being essential to the success of the delivery of the project.

    I am sure you have come across many grizzeled and grey old Construction Managers (actually most of them these days are mid 30’s) who will state that all this computer produced reporting of Plans and Schedules is no use to them because they know how to build , or deliver the project, “we don’t need all that computer stuff, and beside it is always two weeks late” or the “Plan doesn’t reflect reality”

    On several high rise building projects I have been told by the newbie planner that the Critical Path goes through the “Lift Motor Room”, but it very rarely does, but for some reason this old saw continues.

    In order to improve delivery of projects requires a considerable change in Culture in most industries, the value of we Planning and Schedulers, is not seen or considered, a builder does not have the management culture in the organisation to understand that value.

    Now within your subject expertise of Stakeholder Management, I have not seen very many times where the stakeholder has exercised their rights in demanding better plans, schedules being adhered to etc.

    In the initial stages of setting up a project, the stakeholders in the main will know what they want in terms of the product, but not have much idea as to how it will be produced. But they do very little about improving the situation

    20 or so years ago we were all doing Project Charters, Project Specifications and Objectives, Project QM, Project Risk. The last time I actually got Stakeholders to agree to the project team to produce these documents was in 1997 at the Latrobe Regional Hospital Construction.

    The computer companies were also be very big in getting the project team to produce these documents, but over time this was seen to be an expense that can be avoided and thus increase the bottom line.

    If you observe the construction industry when did you last see a full and proper Bill of Quantities produced for a project. The QC is an almost dead animal, only used to check when a major variation has occurred or to agree or disagee with an EOT .

    The problem now in having no BOQ is that all that building measurement information is now taken from the drawings by the sub contractor, who quite often fails to measure it properly, because it is a skill he doesn’t have.The contractor generally doesn’t have the time or people to manage the sub contractor, who has underquoted because of his measurement errors. So they reduce the number of people and there goes the schedule

    So there I am as the Construction Planner and Scheduler without any measurement information by which I can verify the schedule. If I can’t measure it I don’t know where I am, which is why projects are not getting better.

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  7. I think PM/CM forces want to do what’s least painful, but they mistakenly think that learning tried and true methods are more painful than staying in their current rut.

    Stakeholders apparently don’t know any better. PM/CM will not change significantly until they have to. People only embrace change when they believe they have something to gain.

    You have superintendents that have never been tradesmen
    Project managers that have never been superintendents
    Construction managers that have never been either
    Schedulers and Architects that only know the software
    Owners that mainly know accounting

    Fear not – for what the industry lacks in effective ways to manage building processes, it more than makes-up for in its ability to write creative change orders. And if that’s not enough, there is always the GC’s ability to siphon profit from their subcontractors. See for more PM/CM/CPM insights.

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