Project failure revisited

Project-FailOver the holiday period there has been a couple of interesting discussion on project success and failure. The consensus of the many commentators was that the simplistic measures of time, cost and scope are inadequate but there was little consensus on the solution.  This post poses some of the questions that need a considered answer:

Firstly, the APM website posed the question which of the following projects was successful?

Two organisations decided to undertake identical projects with a normalised value of  $1million.
–  Organisation A assessed their project and set the project budget at $800,000
–  Organisation B assessed their project and set the project budget at $1,200,000
Organisation A’s team did their best to ‘meet the challenge’ and achieved an outcome of $900,000 – a cost overrun of $100,000 nominally a project failure.
Organisation B’s team did ‘a good job’ and achieved an outcome of $1,100,000 – a profit of $100,000 nominally a project success.

But which project is really successful??  The one that cost $900,000 or the one that cost $1,100,000 to produce the same output.  This example is simplistic, the numbers are given and the problem is demonstrated, but nowhere will you ever have two identical projects run against different baselines.  How can you assess the ‘project risk’ caused by soft or hard targets??

Similar issues arise when allocating the blame for ‘failure’ to different parts of the ‘performing organisation’.  Many so-called project management and project leadership failures are likely to be either unavoidable consequences or symptoms of far more significant underlying issues (for more on this see: Project or Management Failures?).  Focusing on the superficial (and blaming the project manager) prevents a more thorough ‘root cause analysis’  of the real issues and problems in organizations.  I will take 2 examples and borrowing from Toyota’s ‘Five Whys’ ask ‘why’ a few times:

  1. Failure of PM leadership. The project manager failed to lead, relate or communicate, with stakeholders. But the project manager did not appoint him/her self , some of the unanswered questions are:
    1. Why did the organisation appoint a PM lacking the requisite skills?
    2. Why did the organisation fail to support/train the PM?
    3. Why were the failings not picked up and resolved during routine project surveillance?
  2. Failing to use recognised techniques such as risk management. Some of the unanswered questions are:
    1. Why does the organisation allow sub-standard practices to exist?
    2. Does the organisation have proper templates, processes and support in place to support the practice?
    3. Does the organisation provide adequate time, training and resources to implement the practice?
    4. Why were the failings not picked up and resolved during routine project surveillance?

The answer to these questions may go back to organisational culture, the overall organisational ability to effectively manage and support its projects (the strategic management of projects)  and/or ultimately the governance of the organisation.

Certainly some projects will fail for project related reasons; projects and programs are innately risky and this means project related failures are to be expected – minimising this cause of failure will be valuable. But, simply measuring performance against cost and time targets is influenced by the way the initial target was set in the first place.

project-failure-2The problem is compounded by the lack of ‘root cause’ assessments. I expect a proper study of the root causes of many so-called ‘project failures’ will show many projects are effectively set up to fail by the organisation.  Allowing executive management to continue with these types of practices is ultimately a governance failure. Addressing the ‘root causes’ of failure hidden in executive management practise, culture and governance are likely to generate significantly greater benefits than simply trying to ‘fix project management’; but you cannot see the failures without proper data.

One initiative aimed at working towards a standardised assessment of project failures is a series of articles being published by Proff. Alan Stretton in PM World Journal, see: http://pmworldjournal.net/article/series-project-success-failure-deficiencies-published-causes-project-failures/  (registration is free).

Given the general management mantra of ‘you cannot manage what you cannot measure’, developing a measure of project failure that is valuable and consistent would be a good start in developing the data needed to allow management improvement across the board.

As Alan concluded the referenced article:

The above deficiencies in current data all point to an urgent and obvious need to develop comprehensive data on causes of project failures – preferably validated by appropriate and agreed criteria as to what constitutes success / failure, and covering the widest possible range of project types and project management application areas.

A suggestion (or challenge) here is for global project management organisations (IPMA, PMI, apfpm, etc) to jointly create a framework to develop and share project success / failure data, covering the widest possible range of project management types and application areas. This would include

  • Developing and agreeing common criteria for project success / failure;
  • Collecting and sharing validated data on success/ failure rates;
  • Researching and sharing validated data on success drivers / failure causes.

If you agree support Alan and start lobbying your PM association of choice. Defining the problem is easy, solving it elegantly is not!

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One response to “Project failure revisited

  1. Nick Stone
    Nick Stone
    International “Virtual” Programme/Project Director/Manager (available now)

    Hi

    Objective project success/failure is, in my opinion, very difficult for an organisation to measure often because of the internal politics and desire for one individual/department to score points against another and the lack of ability to step back and look objectively at the project and its achievements, not just failures.

    I fully agree, time, cost and scope are rarely good measures of whether a project has been successful or not.

    It might be worth those interested in this topic looking at two posts on benefits realisation, one by Ron Leeman and a response from me … links below:

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140914031708-7145156-70-of-change-management-initiatives-fail-really?trk=mp-reader-cardhttp://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140918023521-39536657-but-were-the-original-benefits-actually-achievable?trk=pulse-det-nav_art

    Most of the projects and progammes I have worked on and often recovered would have been failures by the time/cost/scope metrics. However, all delivered quantifiable benefits and at the end of the day were considered worth doing even if expensive.

    I am often brought in late in projects and along with making my own assessment of whether it is “doable”, I also look at the required benefits and whether I believe they can be delivered at a “reasonable” cost. Over the 10s of projects I have done this assessment on, I have only twice gone to the Client Board to recommend closure and write off of the investment.

    This is an interesting topic and one I’d like to follow.

    Nick Stone
    Interim International Programme & Project Manager

    FYI, I have also posted this on LinkedIn

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