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.


Posted by James Dale on 24th Apr 2014

About the Author

Dr Jim Dale is an independent project management consultant, mentor and advisor. He is an APM accreditation assessor, an RPP assessor, a PQ facilitator / assessor and an IPMA verifier. Jim has a professional doctorate in change management (University of Portsmouth) and  MBA (pass with distinction) from CASS Business School and has achieved practitioner status in a suite of APMG methods. Jim’s early project background is in policing where he has managed several multi million pound transformational change initiatives, including setting up and delivering tranche 1 of Forensics21, leading a major root and branch review of Sussex Police and managing the introduction of a new call centre, digital telephony, a single non emergency number and ‘e’ contact for that force. Jim is a long standing committee member of ProgM and was the secretary for many years. Several feature articles written by Jim has been published in academic and professional journals, including Project magazine.

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