Three (Scientifically Proven) Reasons Most Projects Fail

And How Your Project Can Be One Of The Few Winners


If you've not listened to the very enjoyable podcast presented by Times journalist Matthew Syed, I would thoroughly recommend it. In his podcast, Sideways he takes well-known stories such as the Stockholm Syndrome or Tony Hsie (the utopian entrepreneur) and considers their impact on the world around us. One of my favourite episodes examined the failures made during the rebuilding of the Oakland Bay Bridge following the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. This is not normally a subject you would associate with entertainment, but it posed some very interesting and thought-provoking questions. Apart from the fascinating story of State Governor vs Residents, the part that really interested me was the mistakes and miscalculations in the project management of the bridge reconstruction; and what we can all learn from these errors. You may be asking yourself whether the mistakes from a multi-million dollar bridge construction can teach us lessons on more modest and less complicated projects. But you might be surprised to know that even the biggest and best-funded programmes still encounter the same problems as the smaller and less high-profile projects.

So Why Do Projects Fail ?

Projects fail because they consistently under-deliver (or perhaps more correctly, over-promise) and there is a very high likelihood that most projects will not deliver the results they promised. Think about the last project you've been part of. It may not have been completely abandoned, but it almost certainly would not have delivered everything it promised, and probably didn't complete on time either.


There is strong evidence to suggest that most projects are pre-destined to fail

1. Competition For Budget

Bent Flyvbjerg, Professor of Major Programme Management at Oxford University, has proposed a theory called The Iron Law of Megaprojects.

We live in a busy and ambitious world where demands for increased profits and more efficient processes are the number one focus for most companies. When this demand is combined with small budgets, everyone ends up competing for the same limited funds and resources. This competitive environment means that anyone hoping to get their project greenlit has an almost impossible task, unless they inflate the potential benefits that their project will provide. Inevitably, the greater the competition, the more exaggerated these benefits become. This results in the projects that look most appealing on paper ultimately getting signed off. But because they have inflated the expected benefits they have the highest chance of failure. And conversely, the realistic and well thought-out projects almost never get given the go-ahead. A similar problem exists when it comes to the prestige and career-enhancing potential of a project. An exciting and innovative project is going to be much more appealing than a safe and ordinary project. And so the flashy projects get approved, while the more boring and realistic projects are ignored. Building a new state-of-the-art bridge is more impressive than rebuilding an existing bridge, even if a rebuild will take half the time at a fraction of the cost.

2. Projects Take Too Long

If you were in an interview for a new job and asked whether you strive for perfection or mediocracy, you would most likely answer perfection.

But when it comes to project management, perfection can be the downfall of a project. Or to be more precise, taking too long to complete the project can be a problem. Over the course of a project, many things can evolve and shift. And the longer the project goes on, the more the conditions can change. If we take the building of the Oakland Bay Bridge as an example, at any time during the building work another earthquake could have hit San Francisco. If the bridge was in mid-build, this earthquake could have caused massive damage, resulting in the project getting set back many years. The longer a project takes to complete, the higher the risk of it hitting an unforeseen delay. In the case of the Oakland Bay Bridge, it may be better to construct a boring-looking (but safe) bridge quickly than spend years making it monumental and flashy. Another real-life example is a lesson learned by dozens of companies over the last few years. They spent months (or even years) upgrading their IT security infrastructure and tried to reach perfection by solving all their problems in one go. However, during this improvement process, they were hit by viruses that could have been easily avoided by just installing some basic software.

3. Sponsors Take Their Eyes Off The Ball

Have you ever experienced a wave of excitement as a project starts, and then over time the interest gradually dwindles? Does the project continue to chug slowly along until it finally finishes with a squeak, rather than a loud fanfare ?

This may be a slight exaggeration of what actually happens, but at times it can feel exactly like this. And one of the most common reasons for this decline in enthusiasm is Senior Sponsors losing interest in the project. Once the project is underway, the core team jumps into all the detailed planning, which the Sponsors are generally not involved in - this means that the Sponsors lose sight of what is going on. The Sponsors may also be pulled into other projects and initiatives which will take up a lot of their time. All of this combined results in the Sponsors being distracted by other activities, and no longer focussed on your project. Although this fast-paced and constantly changing environment is how most companies work, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is the best way to get a project completed. People really underestimate the importance of good Sponsor engagement, and research has shown that the higher the commitment of the Sponsor, the more likely the project will finish on time, and the greater the benefits it will provide. A good Sponsor will be involved from the start, all the way to the end. They will keep the project team accountable for their output and ensure that the project is a success.

The Solution

There are two simple ideas that could solve these three problems outlined above.

Firstly, I would recommend making the Project Sponsor ultimately responsible for the project - they should be personally accountable for the results. This would certainly solve the issue with the Project Sponsors becoming distracted by other work. It would also reduce the risk of over-promising the project benefits as the Sponsor is much more likely to question how realistic the project really is. Secondly, wherever possible, all projects should be iterative in their rollout. Rather than try to complete the project all in one go, it is better to release features as they become available. The iterative approach can be used with any project, and if planned correctly, the benefits can be released little, often, and in the best order. This will dramatically reduce the likelihood of some sort of unforeseen event wrecking the whole project.

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