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Project Failure: Are the reports exaggerated?

You have no doubt read the gloomy reports on the state of project management and the rates of failure and disappointment surrounding project delivery. But just how helpful or even realistic are they?  Moreover, do they help in writing the prescription for success?

The Gloomy Reports

The figures – if you were to believe them – are all doom and gloom.  They suggest a systematic pattern of failed and struggling projects with report after report pointing to widespread shortcomings in how organizations conceive and execute their projects and initiatives

If the doom was limited to just a handful of reports then that might not raise an alarm, but the reports keep coming year after year.  Each one with the same sanguine message of missed deadlines, budget over-runs, disappointed stakeholders and worse.  Some even suggest that 9 out of 10 projects result in such disappointment or frustration1. However, regardless of the specific number, the pattern presented is clear – a persistent struggle to successfully execute on all types of corporate plans or projects:

  • Growth Strategies
  • Change initiatives
  • Transformation programs 
  • Organizational restructures
  • and even digital transformation. 

It all makes for depressing reading and the confidence with which the data is presented leaves little doubt that it must be true. However, be warned: That ‘most projects either struggle or fail – they either disappoint or frustrate’ is only one version of reality.  At best this narrative is unhelpful and out of date, at worst it is just plain wrong.  This is important because if the diagnosis of a problem is wrong, then the proposed solution is likely to be wrong too.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

The gloomy PM surveys don’t just illuminate how complex project management and delivery has become.  They paint a much bigger picture.  The opportunities and challenges presented are as much about change and innovation as they are about Project management.  

To talk of the challenge as a purely ‘project management problem’ is to lose sight of the bigger picture.  The issues involved go much deeper than Gantt charts and project plans – they go to the very heart of leadership and strategy.

Leaders are told they need strategies that are ‘Blue Ocean’ and goals that are ‘Big Hairy and Audacious’.  The role models offered are in the billionaire’s club, including Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Reed Hastings.  There is a downside, however.

That a strategy will succeed is never certain – it cannot be – certainly not in a fast-changing world!  Therefore, a high rate of project disappointment, frustration and even failure can be seen as the price of increasingly ambitious & innovative strategies.  

In addition to the daily running of their business, managers must look to and indeed shape the future.  Managing (or even optimizing) the day to day is not enough to sustain performance and is no guarantee of survival into the longer term.  Managers must strive to shape the future of their organizations even their industries through projects and initiatives that deliver innovative technologies, products, business models, and so on.

The disappointing data on projects highlights the real-world challenges of bringing such increasingly ambitious strategies to life. These challenges that are accentuated at a time of accelerated change.  

Strategy was never easy.  But while taking a new product to market may have once taken 16 or even 24 months, today it must be done in half that time or even less.  If not, the window of opportunity may have closed and competitors will have gained the edge. It is this combination of greater ambition and speed, that makes executing on strategy an increasingly risky affair.  

‘Blue Ocean’ Projects

How to reduce the risk of project delays and overruns?  Well, you could dial back on the level of ambition or the rate of speed. For example, tweak an existing product rather than launching a new one.  You could turn your back on the ‘blue ocean strategy’, settling instead for the more crowded and familiar market spaces.  With your strategy, you could set more modest incremental goals – aiming for the sky rather than the moon. Yet, CEOs are demanding greater creativity and innovation, not less. So too are their customers and shareholders.  So, turning your back on the ‘blue ocean’ probably isn’t an option.

It is popular to talk about ‘moonshots’, ‘inflection points’ and ‘blue ocean strategies’.  These are high risk bets.  Yet, the statistics detailing the woos of project management make no distinction as to levels of innovation, ambition or risk2. What does blue ocean project management look like?  How does project managing a transformation differ from project managing something more straightforward (e.g. a routine IT systems upgrade)?  One thing is clear – you cannot manage business unusual initiatives like they are business as usual.  Yet, organizations still expect complex ambitious projects to routinely deliver as expected and to do so on time and to budget.  Little wonder then that they get the type of disappointing results that the gloomy project management survey reports.

The Price of Ambition

When it comes to ambitious, innovative and complex projects, delays, overruns and shortfalls are not a bug in the system – they are part of the system.  You cannot have ambitious or innovative projects without them.   You can try to minimize and manage these effects, but they can never be eliminated.  Moreover, the traditional route to tackling them – seeking to take greater control – often aggravates the problem.  The only effective means of coping with uncertainty is greater agility.  

Unfortunately, organisations can’t have it both ways – ensuring tight control and rigid adherence to plan, while also being able to hit a moving target in a fast-changing uncertain world. Consulting houses raise the alarm about accelerating change and complexity, yet they judge the performance of projects as though they were immune to these factors.  But if everything else is VUCA then projects are VUCA too! 

Some reports point to the failure of projects to adapt to changing business and stakeholder needs, while others slam projects for failing to deliver to the original plan. Those delivering projects cannot win!

The problem with the gloomy project management reports is that, in many cases, they reflect an out-dated form of project management that makes dangerous assumptions about the accuracy of plans and forecasts, as well as the rate of change. 

Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Solution!

Pointing to shortcomings in project management is aimed at making the case for more and better project management, project management capabilities and even project management tools. However, if the diagnosis of a problem is wrong, then the proposed solution is likely to be wrong too. Improved project management is only part of the solution and indeed, misapplied, it could actually be a part of the problem. Strategy, leadership and agility have as important a role to play.

When it comes to complex and ambitious projects, the tightly controlled ‘all your ducks in a row’ approach to project management is an illusion. The gold standard for project management is not the ‘perfect’ Gantt chart, the project review meeting that is without conflict or tension, or even stakeholders that are perfectly satisfied. In an ordered and predictable world these may have been the goal, but in a time of change and uncertainty they may represent a weakness rather than a strength.

 

  1. The 2015 Global Project Portfolio Survey suggests that 86% of projects will fail to deliver against their budget, schedule, scope, quality and benefits baseline. See: https://www.slideshare.net/assocpm/pw-c-global-ppm-survey-the-case-for-doing-things-differently []
  2. In analyzing an organisation’s portfolio of projects, not all projects are equal.  Projects must be categorised in terms of the level of ambition, the degree of innovation and the associated level of risk.  Some projects are associated with the normal everyday running of the business, called ‘business as usual’, others are ‘business unusual’ – involving something new and different.  The latter are the source of ambition, innovation and risk. []

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