22 December 2008

The answer to project failures is YOU

In 2001 Peter Meyer of AST Group (South Africa) wrote a top ten list of reasons why projects fail.

Here is his list;

The top 10 factors that have driven failed projects are:

  1. Project sponsors are often not committed to the objective. 
  2. Some projects do not meet the strategic vision of the company.
  3. Projects are started for the wrong reasons. 
  4. Project team members lack experience and do not have the required qualifications.
  5. Incomplete project scope.
  6. A project plan that is insufficient.
  7. Project value management is not put into practice.
  8. Insufficient funding.
  9. No formal project management methodologies.
  10. Not all project are going through a formal process.

The full article and descriptions can be found here.

I have two questions for you.

1. How many of these issues did you face at your organisation in 2008?
2. How many of these issues are able to be addressed by selecting one project process over another?

My view: Skilled and experienced people both in the project team and at the sponsor/steering committee are the essential ingredients for project success.  Process is secondary.  Tertiary even.

If you personally have a good track record you are amazing and the exception to the rule. Your customers may not tell you but they value the work you do highly (very highly) and you should seriously consider raising your rates.

You are worth it.

(Photo by B Tal, CC at Flickr)


  1. Craig,

    I think "change of direction" kills many projects. There are many reasons there is a change in direction. The project maybe a pet project of some manager and it never should have been started, but it was easier to waste the money and let the project get stuck in the tar pits than say no. That's how companies train managers, they let them make mistakes.

    Other times there is a change in direction because the company gets bought or runs into unexpected financial difficulties. Other times there is a corporate change in direction or even a change in the business environment which now makes a project that a year ago seemed important now unimportant.

    Or, maybe there is a change because however necessary the project is, it will never be able to pay for itself.

    Or, the project is originated at a senior level of the company and it is fully supported at the senior level but opposed (often quietly or secretly) by mid-level managers. A very large number of projects actually earn their returns by disposing of or shrinking the slush funds of mid-level managers.

    Occasionally project managers and workers have the opportunity to select between projects. More often then not, for people to get promoted, they must work on projects that impact the company. There's a lot of politics involved in the term "impact", very few of which an ambitious person can know or see or understand how they will play themselves out. Especially when there is a changing business environment. The saying: 'if I had only known then what I know now...' has a lot of meaning in the project world.

    That's one of the main reasons why there are a lot of consultants in the project world.

    To think than an individual "YOU", whether you are the PM, sponsor or some other project worker can change any of that, is setting yourself up for failure. You can run the best race possible, but you cannot control the track, the conditions, whether your set in the right direction, whether someone is set in a direction to oppose you, etc.

    Try not to be too focused on the 'you'. More importantly, don't compliment yourself too much when you succeed or beat yourself up too much when you fail.

    To take a line from Kipling's "If"

    If you can meet with triumph and disaster;
    and treat those two imposters just the same.

    Full insight from the master:

  2. Andrew

    I agree with you that we can only influence he game, and that he context is what really sets us up for success or failure. Project management only increases the efficiency and/or effectiveness of a project. It doesn't guarantee success. (Our measure should be against what would have happenned if we didn't apply pm skills and knowledge, not project sccess/failure conditions.)

    Howver, on any team there are a range of players from poor to good, and depending on where you work only exceptionally do you get really top performers. And a team of all rond excellent, skilled, motivated players... well, that's another level altogether.

    In fact I reckon a team of top performers can probably overcome many environmental issues that set a project up for failure. This can happen through many channels including swift on target delivery, effective expectation management, playting politics well, etc.

    So I still stand by the comment that if you personaly have a good track record - you are an exception to the rule and are probably worth more that your peers.

    And I also acknowledge that usually you can't stop a disaster, you can just choose to participate or get out of the way.

  3. Craig,

    I love your ability to take five paragraphs of babble and correctly identify it in one word, context.

    I'm thinking about this because a lot of PM seems to have been taken out of context. PM became a profession developing submarines and sending men to the moon. Huge projects where massive numbers of support personal and sub-projects that needed to be organized and where funding really wasn't an issue.

    My own personal introduction to PM was at GM plant rebuilds in the early 90s. Massive projects involving thousands of contractors, engineers, employees etc. The tools for accomplishing that PM were actually surprisingly simple and very effective. Cost wasn't that much of an issue because you could cover the costs of any overrun in minutes. This was also when GM had waiting lists for their trucks and so the sooner a plant became operational, the sooner it started making money.

    What was interesting is that no one talked about PMI or Agile or anything like that. I'm not sure they existed in GM or EDS's mind. And I don't believe any of those skills would have made those projects more effective. The project had elements to it that determined that it was going to succeed. PM gave transparency. The owners of the project drove it, not the project manager. The project manager was more a journalist than a manager.

    All that sets the context for my responding to your statement that the answer to project failures is you.

    I'm coming to believe more and more that project management in a large organization would be better termed "Project Journalist". They provide transparency to allow the project sponsors to really do their job, which is to drive a project they are personally accountable for to success or failure.

    It seems to me that the project manager role has morphed to become the project scapegoat. If a project fails, it's the failure of the project manager. Or if some large, well known consulting firm (Accenture, Bearing Point, etc.) has been brought in; the project sponsor can take credit if the project succeeds or pass the buck if the project fails.

    I believe it is this modern context of project sponsors taking credit for successes and having scapegoats if there are failures which has created the 'independent contractor/skilled project manager' role/position. That is also why I believe so many projects fail.

    Nobody on the project team could or should be able to claim that they were the "you" who made the project succeed or fail. The responsible person should be the sponsor. The sponsor should assemble the team they feel will make the project succeed. They should get the credit or suffer the full consequences.

    Just like a football coach or quarterback get a disproportionate amount of credit when their teams wins and disproportionately suffer if their team loses, that's what the project sponsor should be.

    Maybe that's not how it is, but that's how it should be. The project sponsor should be the "YOU".

    All that being said, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And I very much look forward to your writing in the new year.


  4. Thanks Andrew.

    I agree with what you say, but also have my cavats - about the limited number of highly skilled people who can help manage elephants through keyholes - and how valuable they are.

    The ideas you're talking about - how maybe we are becoming project scapegoats resonate with me.

    I was recently told (via 'them') that my project sponsor was looking to blame someone and I was the first name to come to mind.

    Frankly, I have baely made a dent in the thing, and all I have been doing is people managing a team. The real cuplprit is the sponsorship set, who haven't got aligned goals and keep putting obstacles in their own way. A classic case study of what you are talking about.

    I like the project journalist concept. Iam going to adopt it in coming months and see what happens. Saying the trusth out loud might be painful for some people here though :)

    Have a good holiday yourself and speak (write) in the new year.

  5. It’s sad but many companies are going to have to learn to deal with axed projects, We had had a few ourselves and I have just seen this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10341863 which lists all the projects agreed to by the Labour government since January 2010 which have been axed, or suspended
    Prince2 Training