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From optimism to catastrophe

It’s acceptable to pull the plug on a project when you’ve done everything right – and still it goes wrong.

‘Vamprojects’ are projects that suck the lifeblood out of anyone unfortunate enough to be associated with them. But even worse are ‘projectgeists’. These are malodorous projects which hang about in the organisation, haunting meetings, delivering nothing of value, but never ending. And then there are ‘wereprogrammes’, where elements pop up in different guises periodically, bite you painfully and melt away until next time.

When exorcised, they give us great headlines. Thirty million pounds wasted on the Universal Credit project is nothing compared to the billions spent on the NHS IT project. And it’s not just cancelled IT or government projects that always seem to be folded too late. They all are. It’s almost inevitable. And here’s why.

The people who lead projects are optimists. They must be. Pessimists know the poor track record of project success – 12 to 30 per cent. Pessimists know that the bigger the project and the higher the profile, the more likely it is to fail – and can’t bring themselves to start. I use a ‘fog index of uncertainty’ to predict the risk of failure. At the ‘painting-by-numbers’ end, clarity on goal and experience of methods guarantee the success of small-scale projects. At the fully fogged end, where you think, ‘I’m not sure what to do, I’m not sure how to do it, and I can’t remember why we started’, failure is ineluctable.

Optimists, however, believe that, with a positive attitude and a compelling vision (and some time and money), they can overcome any challenges that come their way. At the same time, the owners, the people with the power of go/no go, are very senior managers – so senior that they have never had hands-on experience of the internal workings of any change programme or project.

But no matter. They have advisers who propose ‘best practice’ methods, and they have a programme manager with professional experience and a track record of success.

However, this is the 21st century, a time of rapid change, ambiguity and turbulence. Best practice passes its sell-by date quickly. Coordination methods quickly end up controlling the wrong metrics. Business cases are quickly made obsolete by changes in the business environment.

Traditionally, failure is seen as a bad thing. People who have failed in the past have suffered for it. Advisers and programme and project managers have their reputation to maintain. And cancelling a project is a sort of failure, so no owner or professional is in a rush to cancel a project.

As I write, the UK is embroiled in perhaps the biggest programme of change the world has ever seen. Every institution the country relies on will have to be recreated or modified; the physical structure of transportation and farms will be revised; families repatriated from abroad will require housing; business contracts and new markets will have to be persuaded. And the list goes on. The programme manager and a sponsor or two have resigned. Journalists, who never understand organisational resilience, think the government will instantly fall. It won’t. And do you remember that I mentioned that no one is in a rush to cancel a project?

Now you see why we suffer the horror of vamprojects, projectgeists and wereprogrammes. Projects which should fold are kept on life support. So, when should you kill off a project? There are tell-tale signs to help you decide on immediate termination:

  • If the business case can’t survive halving the benefits and doubling the cost, start to reach for the wooden stake.
  • If the deliverables have not been ‘chunked up’ to deliver some benefits early, or if chunked up, nothing has been delivered despite significant effort, reach for the silver bullet.
  • If the owner’s understanding of the fog uncertainty index is unclear and the project owners are speaking about a foggy change as if it were clear and obvious, start sprinkling the salt.
  • If the delivery team is over-optimistic or fragmented, you need to begin to raise the axe.
  • Ask if there is a culture of ‘prelimination’ – identifying and fixing issues before they go off track, and having a plan B. If instead there is a blame or finger-pointing culture, call Ghostbusters.

Professor Eddie Obeng is a regular contributor to Project journal. This article first appeared in the Autumn 18 issue.

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