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Forget the silver bullets, it's time for silver buckshot

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In my last blog I berated the fact that there is a constant stream of surveys asking for the top reasons why projects fail. In fact one I saw only last week asked for the top one cause/reason for project failure?

These surveys may just pass you by, but they do tend to get higher levels of interaction on social media than almost any other type of discussion. Just let it go! I hear you say. It doesnt do any harm and at least it gets people discussing what can go wrong.

Well I think it does do harm. As I previously pointed out, these surveys come up with the same old reasons time and time again and they have an insidious effect.

If there is a small and finite number of reasons why projects fail, then there should be a small and finite number of solutions that will make projects succeed. It is this mentality that leads to the silver bullet approach.

In the four decades that I have been managing or consulting there have been numerous silver bullets that will solve all our project management problems. In the 80s it was project management software (which was, of course just planning software*); in the early 90s it was methodologies; in the late 90s it was qualifications and so on. Clearly, these silver bullets have had no effect on the looming beast of project failure.

There is another phrase that is more relevant to what we need to do silver buckshot.

When reviewing post project reviews from many different sources I am struck by the fact that reasons for project failure are often very mundane. Phrases like, we should have communicated with our stakeholders more effectively or we should have been much clearer about the objectives are by no means uncommon.

Conversely, when you read the PPRs of successful projects, they can often be paraphrased as saying nothing more inspiring than we did the basic things well and they worked (this is particularly noticeable in some of the London 2012 PPRs).

Project failure needs to be addressed on a very broad front. No snipers bullet is going to solve the cultural issues that cause projects to fail. What we need is buckshot and lots of it. Project success will be achieved through a multitude of individually unimpressive small shots rather than a single bullet aimed at the top one cause of project failure.

* I fondly remember a magazine advert for SuperProject, which was a top selling package before MS Project came along. It showed the SuperProject box (software came in boxes in those days) on the Mastermind black leather chair. The strapline was the best project manager youll ever meet. Really?!!


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  1. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 08 July 2014, 09:59 AM

    In many ways a great metaphor, as buckshot is used to hit an often fast moving target with multiple "bullets". Sorry if you are squeamish.And therein also lies the metaphor's weakness, as most buckshot misses. Hmmm, come to think of it, its still a very good metaphor for reality, as so much of what we throw at projects to make them successful does not work.And then the blog's telling message at the end; "we did...things well - and they worked".Best practice is just that, its NOT best theory. It actually works.Thing is, how we we create an organisational landscape in which people can do the right thing, both inside a project and outside in its landscape?Answers on a postcard to.........

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 06 July 2014, 11:07 AM

    If project managers keep on trying to resolve project failures they will keep on failing.The vast majority of project failures are the direct and predictable result of executive management decisions.  Allowing executive management to wast billions is a governance failure!  But very few if any Dept. Secretaries CEOs and Directors resign or are fired for creating organisations tat are designed to cause project failure on a grand scale.Peter Morris is has been focusing on the management of projects for more then a decade, there is a good blog on the strategic management of projects by Dr. Lynda Bourne at: a straw pole I did a couple of years ago is at: can keep on discussing project failure till the cows come home and it will not make one iota of difference the conversation has to move to the C-Suites, Board rooms and Cabinet Tables to resolve 75% of the imposed causes of failure. The simple fact is most projects that fail are set up to fail by executive management - the only question is, are their actions deliberate or grounded in ignorance? And Im not sure which option is worse!London 2012 was successful because it was set up to succeed. Given the right environment good project managers can deliver we know what to do! Give a project manager an impossible deadline, inadequate resources and/or no direction and support and surprise-surprise, failure follows. We are not in the miracle business.The challenge facing project mangers is how to deliver this message at the right level of organisations maybe the Royal Charter will help if the High Court decides in favour of the APM.