Reflections on project failure #1

Basil Woods at Baz Practice draws attention to a report by the UK’s Public Account Committee into an appalling case of incompetence regarding a major project.

The post and the report are worth reading.

One thing that captured my attention was this statement by the Chairman of the Committee:-

“Clearly this project was handled badly, it achieved poor value for money, many of the causes of delays and cost overruns could have been avoided. I could make some grand eloquent statement about how we never expect to see this happen again in the Civil Service but I suspect I would be wasting my breath.” – Edward Leigh

Mr Leigh has looked into other projects that have gone wrong. Many of us in work in the project arena have their own war stories to tell in this regard.

In my recent ISACA presentation, PROJECTS – Key Issues in Success/Failure,  I noted:-


These figures were drawn from the Standish Group Chaos reports. These studies and others have been reporting  poor statistics regarding projects for many years now. Whilst some dispute the Standish numbers, there is generally no argument that many projects substantially under achieve in terms of costs, time line, functionaliy and benefits. Not all as spectacularly as the one cited in the UK, but in one or more of the previously mentioned areas.

Much has been written about the causes of project failure. Indeed, cynics like my self read some accounts of project success and are tempted to wonder how that success was achieved and were the judgement criteria changed along the way.

Yet still it happens, despite the methodologies and frameworks designed to stop it happening.

Indeed as Chairman Leigh stated at the outset:-

“I have had all this before and I just do not know whether there is any point really carrying on frankly…Why did these problems re-occur, the same old lessons have not been learnt; over ambitious, weak project management and all the rest.”

There we have it in a nutshell:-

Why did these problems re-occur, the same old lessons have not been learnt; over ambitious, weak project management and all the rest

That comment to a greater or lesser extent could probably be made whenever a poorly performing project is examined.

I accept that weak project management can be a factor, but based on my own experience I venture to suggest, based on my experience – including running a major Project Quality Office, that a number of  factors play a significant part in many instances, these include:-

  • pro-active and committed involvement of executive management from the outset
  • alignment of project objectives with business strategy and objectives
  • setting objectives which are achievable within the time and budget
  • providing a sufficiency of time for completion, rather than setting dealines which are not realistic
  • recognition that projects are no longer in many cases IT projects, but are in fact Business Change projects which are enabled by IT and incorporating this into all aspects of the project
  • rigourous and on-going assessment of benefits and costs; coupled with a willingness of all involved to take action when situations alter
  • rigourous review of risk both project and business, including an assessment of organizational capability to undertake the project
  • clear and unambiguous reporting of project performance, against project standards and the business case
  • dedicated, trained and capable resource*
  • establishing the project appropriately**

* as at least one commentator has noted – chopping and changing resources has significant adverse impact on projects

** major projects should be established as programmes , with a number of component projects. The interdependencies being reviewed and all parties being made aware of them. Further, projects should be broken into constituent parts which are capable of management.

If these are lacking, why should we be surprised when problems emerge. In fact if any of the above are deficient they should be warning signs. But, again many have highlighted these issues. Indeed, all the above have been written about before in various guises, blogs, academic magazines and books by gurus. So what are we to do?

To achieve an improvement will take a culture change in many organizations.

One of the reasons for ‘failure’ in many instances, and/or problems arising is I suggest the prevalence of organizational cultures where ‘bad news‘ is unwelcome and ‘shooting the messenger‘ is common. This may well be coupled with situations where senior management/executives are not closely involved. Interestingly, when I comment in this vein when giving presentations many in the audience often nod knowingly, and in conversation afterwards I have often been asked how it is that I knew that was the problem with Project X or Y. Of course I did not know,but such comments go a long way to substantiate my view on some of the siiues which exist.

In that regard, I am heartened by the advent of ISO 38500 – Corporate Governance of information technology, which may assist in creating a climate for change. This will be assisted as well by the increasing emphasis in both the public and private sectors on ensuring value is delivered for the investments made.

At the end of the day though, there can be no substitute for rigour at all stages from the moment when a project is conceived to the point, possibly many years later when the application/process or other deliverable is ‘retired’. This requires the inculcation in an organization of a set of core values where good practice, rigour, integrity and transparency and communication are the natural order of things rather than the exception.


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