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Is project failure a choice?

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Why has so much lack of success become tolerated on our projects, and what does that say about our attitude to failure?

It’s a provocative question but why is failure tolerated — even expected — on major projects? Damning statistics that show that the majority of projects fail to meet their budgets, timeframes or expectations are shocking to those outside the profession but resignedly accepted by those working on the projects. What’s gone wrong? What will it take to provoke us out of this way of thinking?

There are sharp minds with practical solutions who can help shake the profession out of its low expectations — yes, success should be expected and is possible, time after time. But is this idea just too difficult to contemplate? And just how should we think about failure — should we view it as a positive thing? We asked two of those at the top of the project profession to give their take on things.

Mark Wild OBE, MD of SGN, and ex-CEO of Crossrail

“The topic of major programme under performance is back in the headlines. Of course, this latest cycle of a perennially recurring theme has been prompted by the decision to curtail HS2, but the general weariness is also related to a series of high-profile project issues.

This general sense of ‘resigned apathy’ is very unhelpful to the project community, of course. We face extraordinary challenges in the future, whether it be the path to net zero or the future of mobility. A serious big build is coming our way and we need the confidence of the public and the politicians they elect.

I was privileged to have led Crossrail to completion and the opening of the Elizabeth Line. It's interesting that despite the very up and down history of the programme it is seen as a great success now people have been able to use it. My personal learning in the delivery of Crossrail was the benefit of radical transparency in the delivery, explaining in simple terms what's going on and why it is hard.

So, explaining the delivery and celebrating the outcomes that we have achieved is important. These huge programmes are incredible acts of will. Extraordinary breakthroughs in technology and scale, changing lives for the better. They need to be celebrated.

Of course, the project profession does need to look in the mirror as well. Major Programmes that are on time and on budget are rare indeed. This is a trend that without correction is unlikely to improve. The ever-increasing scale and complexity of these endeavours requires a new response.

The solution to this challenge lies in leadership that moves beyond standard collaboration and into a more elevated and purposeful "owning the whole". This means much more transparent collective work, always with the end outcome in mind.

The future successful major programmes will be expert at having the voice of the future operator very influential at the start. These successful programmes will also use modular solutions extensively. Finally, and most importantly, they will embrace diversity, have a culture of curiosity and an environment where everyone can speak truth to power.”

Darren Dalcher, Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University Management School

I should probably begin by declaring a positive bias towards failure. I have spent a number of decades revelling in the diversity, the richness and the dogged persistence of different forms of failure embedded in human systems.

So, what have I observed on my journeys? First, there is a need for experimentation. Many organisations struggle with innovation, not least because so much is unknown in relatively unexplored contexts, domains and situations. Our ability to innovate in new spaces often depends on a process of experimentation where new ideas, concepts and products are created and their feasibility, impacts and outcomes are evaluated.

This enables us to buy information about the context and about potential approaches for dealing with it. Without such information, there is a risk of our best guesses being elevated to a promissory level, instead of remaining as working hypotheses in progress.

Second, we are struggling with the notion of protection. Social scientists recognised over three decades ago that risk had become a dominant feature of society replacing wealth production as a means of measuring progress.

Shielding ourselves from the risk of the unknown through layers of management, governance, audits and assurance, may dampen our appetite for risk, change, innovation and adventure. As the change efforts of society are increasingly characterised by greater ambition, scope and scale, we find ourselves dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity and turbulence that defy our overprotective intentions and instincts.

Third, learning and improvement form an important part of operating in a dynamic setting. Given that not all projects are the same and there are no one size fits all solutions, our approaches should reflect a diversity of means, assumptions and expectations.

Dynamic conditions call for continuous sensing, learning and adapting. Making mistakes is acceptable, especially when we do not know enough up front and must therefore exhibit a willingness to learn.


Read the full article in the Spring 2024 issue of Project


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