Before I get into some of the content of this article, I must place a heavy caveat on the fact the subject of project failure and systematic causes has been the focus of hundreds if not thousands of articles, reviews, academic papers, thesis papers and even doctorates… so what I will follow with are some observations on just a couple of the themes I have seen throughout my career.

Sadly, and interestingly, none of this is new with these themes having been spoken about for some time and yet it keeps happening. Therefore, I would suggest the thoughts and reflections below seek to consider some deep-rooted components of project delivery and their potential effects on execution.

Ultimately we come back to that, at its core, a project is driven by people…and people have behaviours that are vastly complex through to an evolutionary level. So, whilst the profession has spent countless millions and generations developing process and tooling, project managers at all levels must remember they are taking this logical, rigorous process and tooling and expecting this to control and override millions of years of evolution in very complex mammals.

I think finally, I would add that despite many years’ experience now in the profession, I am as guilty as any one of still falling foul of my human brain and occasionally doing all of the below still, so I am no saint!

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Looking Back and forward in Balance

By its very definition, a project is a unique, transient endeavour. Unique. So, it’s not been done before. Yet there seems to be a tendency to rely heavily on looking back at past projects to inform how a new project may execute and very little looking forward.

Do not get me wrong, organisational learning is an essential discipline of any effective organisation, to improve, learn and grow itself. Looking at how similar projects went is also a great way of guiding and informing how a new project may go in its fundamentals. Benchmarking is a great way of identifying how things may go when there is no other data to hand.

However, one must also then ensure they consider what makes this project unique, new and the context in which it will be executed and how this may impact the delivery. This could be anything from political context, big or little ‘P’, economic context even cultural context (good old PESTLE!).

Put yourself and your team of the future state mind set, perhaps do a pre-mortem (assume it will go disastrously and try think of what may have caused this). Take the time to look as much forward as backwards as a good balance will pay off dividends.

Optimism Bias

The subject of bias is fascinating, delving deep into the inner psychology of the human brain and I wouldn’t dare to try and do it justice in this article. However, very broadly it is recognised that humans tend to be quite optimistic about their ability to do things quickly and mitigate risk compared to how things really happen when they are close to it. In the case of projects, thinking something can be delivered to a time and cost that was never realistic given the breadth of uncertainty and risk.

Plus I’m afraid chaps, it’s been proven we are far more guilty of it than ladies, especially when we are younger, does the phrase “watch this!” spring to mind?

However, knowing this we can work with it. Organisations can put safeguards in place to allow themselves proportionate contingency for resources and time depending on the level of complexity, uncertainty and risk. Adjustments can be made to forecasts based on a series of questions; tolerances can be made based on risk levels. The value of independent assurers on artefacts like business cases cannot be under-estimated to support with affording a sensible level of contingency.

The important thing for any organisation is to recognise this, not be ashamed or dismissive of it, indeed energy and optimism in delivery is a valuable trait in teams driving innovation and motivation, however this is about putting in place safeguards and then working with it. If things come together and you don’t have to draw down on much contingency, then great – tea and medals all round! A much nicer position to be in then coming back to a sponsor cap in hand 6 months in when you assured them all would be well.

Be Risk Sensible

Finally, a few words on risk. This again is a vastly complex subject, with academics spending a huge amount of time and energy exploring and rationalising it as our world becomes more complex, so I won’t try and duplicate that here!

However, a key discipline and piece of thought leadership from my time in defence was the phrase risk sensible. At its core it surrounds being comfortable and transparent with the nature of risks. Not shying away from them, no matter how dramatic they may appear so the stakeholders truly understand their exposure, good or bad and can then make effective decisions based on their risk appetite in a given scenario.

This pushed a subtle yet dramatic shift of mindset where teams were much more transparent about project risk, open about potential impacts, the level of unknown unknowns and as a result were able to able to have really quite effective discussions with sponsors about how much contingency to allow for given projects and programmes.

It started to drive out the natural instinct to understate risk or assume mitigations would all work brilliantly first time and every time (our friend optimism bias again…) and helped put projects and programmes on a good footing for effective decision making as early on as possible.

As I said in my introduction, the causes and roots of project failure are the source of continued heavily academic research and will continue to plague us as the pace of change in the world accelerates. However, there are some key themes that can be at least acknowledged and considered when considering execution of a project that can at the very least, make one feel things are more transparent and start to put a different type of control over execution.

I thoroughly recommend the International Journal Of Project Management for regular academic papers on all things project, the subject of risk, optimism bias and project failure are (unfortunately!) regular themes. However, they provide useful, up to date and considered insights into how the profession is dealing with these challenges across the world.