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Learning from the misfortunes of others

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For as long as I can remember the reported failure rate for programmes and projects has been stuck at the seventy per cent level. This is despite the huge increase in PPM qualifications, the adoption of the Gateway Review Scheme by Government and the sterling efforts of our own professional body. There is also an abundance of rich publicly available case study material documenting contemporary Government PPM (programme and project management) fiascos. So, collectively, why are we not applying the knowledge gleaned from failure and improving PPM delivery?

In Richard's Bacon's excellent book entitled 'Conundrum - Why every government get things Wrong - and what we can do about it' the author reminds us of some recent PPM horror stories:

Richard Bacon MP is the guest speaker at a Programme Management SIG event, in Central London scheduled for 18th June.

  • The National Programme for IT in the NHS
  • The InterCity West Coast Rail Franchise Fiasco
  • The Child Support Agency and many more

What is so depressing is that the same old common causes of failure emerge time and time again:

  • Ill-defined roles and responsibilities
  • a high churn / turnover of senior staff
  • corporate amnesia with lessons not being learnt or applied
  • skills / experience gaps
  • woeful user / stakeholder engagement
  • poor financial management
  • sloppy procurement
  • inadequate / inappropriate risk management
  • misunderstanding the cultural challenges.

In his book Richard Bacon reminds us that 'culture eats strategy' for breakfast.

When I was appointed as a Government Gateway Reviewer many years ago I was advised to expect to see these recurring common causes of programme and project failure and sadly I must report that I have.

In my own research, undertaken as part of a professional doctorate, I was keen to understand why intelligent and capable PPM professionals believed these same mistakes were being repeated again and again. 'Yes' there is a lack of awareness, particularly amongst senior key decision makers. Others were blinded by 'optimism.' Yet a large number of practitioners while knowing of the generic reasons for failure choose to ignore them in the heat of delivery. I label this the hypocrisy of management. 

View 'Using research to improve the delivery and effectiveness of change programmes' slides.

Leo Buscaglia (20th century academic and author) said poignantly that ‘Change is the end result of learning’

The challenge for the PPM community is not simply to note with interest the next report highlighting the next project fiasco but to 'internalise' and apply the learning.

Richard Bacon MP is the guest speaker at a Programme Management SIG event entitled Peeling back the covers on government programmes, in Central London scheduled for 18th June.

This event promises to provide delegates with the best two hours Programme Management CPD of all-time and it has been scheduled so as not to interfere with World Cup football coverage.

Early booking is highly recommended.

View an interview with Richard in the December 2013 issue of Project Magazine.


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  1. Richard Preston
    Richard Preston 01 May 2014, 04:03 PM

    Thanks all for an illuminating discussion.  Time to produce a succinct, ccoherent piece.  It wont be ready before this chat it removed so I look forward to joining up again elsewhwere

  2. James Dale
    James Dale 01 May 2014, 12:49 PM

    Thanks Richard and AndrewPoint 1.   Richard - your analagy of a diet is poignant and made me chuckle -  but I fear the situation is even worse.  Because of the revolving door practice for SRO's in the public sector you can bing on all the wrong food, then move on and leave some other unsuspecting sole to be saddled with the consequences.  A theme of Richard Bacon's book is that it is very hard to aportion blame.Point 2.  Andrew you are right there is a lot of subjectivity and success and failure sit on a continuim with even failed projects producing some (albeit minor) pockets of success.  Yet I would suggest that the evidence of high failure is extensive, believable and compelling.  The statistic that is the forefront of my memory comes from David Pitchford, former head of the Government's Major Projects Authority.  It goes like this:The MPA supervisie 206 Government projects valued at 408b.  In 2012 the overall success rate was calculated to be 30%.  Check out: guysJim 

  3. Richard Preston
    Richard Preston 30 April 2014, 05:35 PM

    So my previous contribution was somewhat tongue in cheek so lets have a more serious look.   A few years ago I was part of the, now defunct, APM policy unit discussing why projects fail.  I pulled out my list of reasons compiled from a bit of research during my pseudo-academic phase at Lancaster University in the 90s.  A few minutes later Geoff Reiss (of Projects/Programmes Demystified fame) arrived and pulled out his list which looked remarkably similar  -  they both have a considerable resemblance to the one Jim posted here. Anyone serious about project management knows what is wrong.  It bears uncanny resemblance to the growing problem of obesity.  We get more, increasingly complex/bizarre diets and the result - increasing levels of obesity. The best way to lose weight is easy - eat less.  Project management is going the same way as diets.  We need to remember is  theory of project management is easy (it is the equivalent of eating less) but getting ourselves to do it is far more difficult.   Perhaps I will have more luck with the Essence of Python.

  4. Richard Preston
    Richard Preston 30 April 2014, 02:43 PM

    I find this discussion both depressing and exhilarating at the same time.  Depressing because we keep on hearing the same old stuff trotted out as if it were something new. Exhilarating because we still haven't cracked it - the Holy Grail is out there somewhere and I would love to find it.   In the meantime we can continue to delight in comparing the flavour and texture of the latest brand of snake oil with the myriad of other brands purporting to improve project success. Oops , sorry , got to go.  My latest batch of Mamba Infused Cobra needs stirring.  Back later to expand in more serious vein if required.

  5. Andrew Wells
    Andrew Wells 29 April 2014, 09:52 AM

    This is an interesting debate which will I fear sadly remain confined to the subjective opinions of the few who are interested in such things. We would all agree that it is good practice to learn lessons, indeed the principle is enscrined in ISO90001 to which most mature organisations are signed up to. However, the issue will remain a game of smoke and mirrors without a culture change that means that we are prepared to be open and honest without fear of retribution or career impact. I have ot had the fortunate experience of working in such an enviroment although I am told they exist. This is sad because it means that we only learn from our own perspective in any given situation rather than a deeper understanding.

  6. James Dale
    James Dale 25 April 2014, 03:59 PM

    Thanks AdrianGreat points particularly about culture  -  nurturing or toxic.  You highlight the application of double organisational standards which simply should not be acceptable.  The paradox is that while striving for a six sigma approach in business as usual it is appears 'acceptable' (by some) to tolerate sub optimal performance when delivering programmes, projects and change.  Why this is so  -  I fail to understand.....Jim

  7. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 25 April 2014, 02:52 PM

    Great blog Jim.And I nearly agree with Pat. It is often forgetten that projects (programmes etc.) exist within a landscape. A "good" project manager often manages to be successful in a non-supportive landscape. But why on earth should they?So many organisations establish an environment (usually by accident, sometimes deliberately) that is toxic to projects.Governance plays a key role, being part of the environment's culture that is toxic or nurturing (too few of the latter).Many of the factors Jim raises so well relate to a toxic culture. It has to be asked why CEOs and COOs tolerate levels of wastage in projects in their landscape that would cause heads to roll in say.....a manufacturing operation.

  8. James Dale
    James Dale 25 April 2014, 01:11 PM

    Thanks Neil & Pat.  You are both 'spot on' raising the issue of accountability and governance.  In the public sector some senior managers appear to have perfected the art of absolving responsibility or they simply pass the blame to their successors or predecessors. Bufferfly management still appears to be rife in Government.   Or are the politicans to blame?  My conclusion having read Richard Bacon's detailed account of high profile government failures is that it is impossible to point the finger at any individuals.  This is indicative of organisational failure where senior managers do not appear to be sufficiently motivated to challenge others and ask elementary questions.  Organisational culture has to change.

  9. Neil White
    Neil White 25 April 2014, 11:05 AM

    I think this debate is long overdue and, coming from the Change Management community rather than the traditional PPM community, I see things from a slightly different standpoint. My observations do not challenge the evidence quite ably outlined by Jim but do attach extra weight to one or two of the findingsTo cut to the chase I believe that central to the problem is accountability or rather the lack of it fix this and many of the other secondary causes will be mitigated by resulting change in imperative! Proper accountability for performance would result in initial and sustained pressure from the top for success. Timely support of this observation comes in the shape of a growing demand for improved Public and Private sector executive performance a fact borne out by an increased appetite for transparency and the general publics growing expectation that remuneration must be linked to performance.Whilst I agree with most of what patw posits and accept the point that a new breed of people need to move into these accountable positions I do question the veracity of the view that they should come from the PPM and IT communities. I am a strong advocate of the thinking that supports differentiation between the mindset of Project and Programme managers and that of Change Managers; the latter of which have a naturally holistic and consequential perspective of the change landscape. Great debate! Neil.

  10. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 25 April 2014, 08:18 AM

    There was a good article on this topic in project manager today (March ed.) by Steven Carver and Bill Johnson.  The reasons for failure have not changed in the 30 years since the Harvard Business School published one of the first studies on the subject.  Unfortunately for project / program professionals well over 75% of these reasons for failure have nothing to do with how well you run the project or program.  I did some light research on this a couple of years back, the conclusions are at My assessment is the root cause of failure is poor governance, probably caused by the governing body being largely ignorant of the project management practices developed in the last 60 years. IT has a similar problem, and when you combine the two sets of ignorance into a major IT project and the effect is compounded. Time will eventually solve this problem as the current executives are slowly replaced by people with some practical exposure to project management and IT.  For the next 10 to 30 years though managing upwards to fix problems caused by ignorance at the highest levels, often manifest as blind optimism, will always be challenging.  Its very difficult to create a great lamb stew from a pile of vegetables; simple common sense tells everyone you need some meat as well (you dont need to be a great cook to understand this). Until the same level of basic common sense pervades the higher levels of executive management and governing bodies responsible for commissioning programs, they will still believe you can commission a highly complex major program such as Universal Credit and expect it to be complete in less than a third of the time any similar program has taken in the past because this one is different.  Unfortunately acquiring the same level of common sense as most people have regarding stews is generational. In the interim it is a very rare commodity, which allows the executives and governors of organisations to believe their own wishful thinking and/or unrealistic promises made by advocates and brand people who really understand the issues as 'incompetent pessimists'.