“We know why projects fail, we know how to prevent their failure — so why do they still fail?” Martin Cobb, CIO, Treasury Board Secretariat, 1995. The reasons why projects fail are well understood they include[i]
- Poor project definition including announcing major funding decisions before the business case has been fully developed.
- Optimistic assessment of the costs reflecting the tendency of project sponsors to minimise the publicly communicated costs of projects in the early stages.
- Weak analysis of potential risks reducing risk management to form filling and a tick box exercise
- Over exaggeration of the potential benefits in order to justify the business case.
- Poor planning, control, reporting and governance because everybody just wants to get on with the project delivery.
- Ineffective change control because the senior managers are not willing to consider difficult decisions early in the process.
Responding to this challenge APM looks to create a world where all projects succeed[ii], but is it possible or even desirable?
A world in which every project succeeds implies that the projects have no risks. As everyone knows there is no such thing as a zero risk return. To reduce the risk to zero would imply so much investment planning and control that it would stifle all innovation.
In fact, many successful projects have grabbed the failures of others. As Winston Churchill said “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Many of the most successful organisations we have today are based on their willingness to accept failure as part of the process leading to success. For example, the highly successful mobile phone company Orange was formed by a team that failed to launch a long forgotten mobile communication system called Rabbit[iii] and Twitter was launched following the failure of a blogging platform called Odeo[iv].
From my own experience reflecting on my time running many projects lots of ideas have failed to materialise but a few have turned out to be very successful and we only need a few successes to justify the projects that didn’t quite work.
No matter how much research, planning and market testing you do you can never be absolutely sure that every project is going to succeed. Does this mean we shouldn’t give a wild idea a go? If organisations are not willing to try some of these crazy ideas then they will never develop the innovative products and services that will put them ahead of their competitors.
So why do we strive to be beat Cobb’s paradox, surely a much more mature strategy is to recognise that projects contain inherent risk and without that risk we have no return.
An organisation needs to recognise this risk in a realistic way and expect that some of these risky projects will, in fact, not go as well as expected. From this perspective what we need is to have mechanisms that enable projects to fail in a controlled way, with effective decision taking and transparency that means the organisation is able to recognise likely failure, learn from its outcome, and renew its energies in directions in which they’re going to be more productive.
So for projects to be truly successful:
- Be realistic about the risks being taken, no project is risk free but some risks are worth taking. The owners of the organisation should recognise every project is a risk.
- Be honest about other projects – what’s going wrong, what were realistically the chances of success.
- Don’t take failure personally, try to be objective about the chance of success – it may be that there are insurmountable problems that mean this project is not going to succeed.
- Maintain ownership for key decisions associated with the project of those who have the power and influence to take them. Make sure the organisation does not abdicate its ownership of key decisions. Be transparent in presenting the risks in the business case so the senior managers can take decisions in full light of the risks and rewards to be expected from the project.
- Adopt a professional approach to the project implementing appropriate levels of governance and control to drive the project forward in a coordinated and sensible way.
- Most importantly keep a sense of perspective and positivity in the organisation because you are bound to come across very difficult and sometimes insurmountable challenges in any project and success in overcoming these will rely on teamwork and supporting your colleagues.
- Finally recognise Cobb’s paradox for what is, in fact, part of our human condition. He can guarantee the pharaohs were told the pyramids would be built within their lifetime when actually they were long dead and buried before they were finished.