Projects fail for the same reasons fad diets fail – it’s simple but not easy!

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Adrian Dooley
I was originally a construction project manager but moved into training and consultancy 30 years ago. After a career of trying to explain the reasons why the various PPM guides use different terminology and individually cover only parts of organisational PPM, I decided to develop the Praxis Framework.

With depressing regularity, someone in a magazine or a social media site will ask “What are the top reasons why projects fail?” Unsurprisingly, such surveys come up with the same old answers time after time.Button

The first example I ever found was from an IPMA conference in 1972, so we’ve been identifying the same reasons for at least 40 years. Looking at the history of some projects in antiquity I suspect it was the same 2,000 years ago.

The reason projects fail is for the same reason fad diets fail – it’s simple but not easy. The principle of losing weight is simple – the problem is that is isn’t easy. Temptation is all around and true weight loss requires long term life style change – not a quick fix.

Like losing weight, the principles of project management are simple – it’s just not easy when we want results yesterday that are top quality and don’t want to pay much for it.

Reasons, such as ‘poor sponsorship’ or ‘unrealistic expectations’ or ‘inadequate business requirements’ are not, in principle, difficult to get right if everyone (and I don’t just mean the project team) understand and agree what needs to be done. We just need to apply all those things they tell you about in the most basic of project management courses.

The problem is not that we don’t know how to manage projects effectively, it’s that the social environment often doesn’t allow us to do the right things. This is what often leads, for example, to an oft quoted reason for project failure – inadequate planning, because “if we did proper planning to estimate the real time and real cost we’d never get approval”.

Project management as a whole needs to take a more professional attitude and those outside of project management need to have greater respect for project teams who do the right things – even if it means they don’t hear what they wanted to.

Project management needs a change in social attitudes. What sort of people should we ask to manage change in organisations – project managers perhaps?

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  1. Spot on comment Adrian. We periodically return to this theme in our white papers and theme briefs. What is disappointing is that between papers little seems to change and the same reasons for project and programme failure still seem to prevail in business. For me breaking through the ‘social’ barriers you describe is about leadership and relationship management and, of course, no small amount of professional assertiveness – particularly when faced with strong-minded business stakeholders who may not necessarily be aligned with the project or programme in the right way. My personal gripe is the absentee sponsor, surely a barometer for the likely success or failure for any project or programme.

  2. Andrew – your mention of professional assertiveness rings so true and is perhaps not raised often enough as contributing to project failure – or, rather, the lack of assertiveness on the part of the project manager. It can be very difficult to be assertive with strong minded, and often senior, stakeholders…


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