In 1995, Martin Cobb, the CIO of the Secretariat of the Treasury Board of Canada, said: “We know why projects fail, we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?”
This became known as Cobb’s Paradox, and while we could argue that this absolutist statement is not completely true, there is no doubt that we have a lot of knowledge about how to run projects and more seem to fail than should be the case.
I am a close observer of the numerous surveys that seek to find the reasons why projects fail. The earliest example I have found was presented at an IPMA conference in 1972. Among the primary reasons it gave for project failure were unrealistic expectations; unclear or inadequate requirements; a lack of senior management support; and insufficient or excessive planning.
Compare that with a sample of the reasons given in a survey published on LinkedIn this year: unrealistic schedules; poor project requirements; lack of stakeholder buy-in; and insufficient resource planning.
I think it’s fair to say that not much has changed in 50 years and that such lists do not highlight the real causes of project failure; they are the symptoms that arise from something more fundamental.
Lessons not learned
Another way of looking at this problem is to study lessons learned reports. I have worked with many large organisations in different sectors, and this has often involved going through lessons learned reports and talking to project teams about their experiences. Anecdotally, a pattern soon emerges: projects fail because teams do not implement the well-established good practice that they learn on project management courses.
More recently, I’ve been able to move on from anecdotal evidence by reviewing 1,300 lessons learned reports obtained by freedom of information request. These revealed ‘lessons’ such as:
- “Clearly identify priority and reason for project (it changes depending on who you ask).”
- “Plan communications and keep staff fully involved throughout the project.”
- “Having a formal business case would have been beneficial.”
- “Ensure the project has adequate financial commitment to fully deliver the required outcomes.”
None are revolutionary. All these aspects of competent project management are covered in the most basic courses. So why don’t they become routine good habits?
There are many reasons, and I do not suggest that what follows is a comprehensive list, but these are some of the cultural and contextual reasons I have identified whilst developing the Praxis Framework, a free online project delivery framework endorsed by APM and other international professional bodies.
1. Disjointed good practice guidance
There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to bodies of knowledge, methodologies, competency frameworks etc. The problem is that they all use different terminologies and taxonomies. This does not help an organisation develop and embed a consistent and holistic approach.
Most good practice comes in large, and often expensive, tomes. If we want good practice to become second nature, we need it to be accessible and open.
3. Monday morning
Most people learn about good practice by going on courses. But the course finishes on a Friday afternoon and after a relaxing weekend you are back in a hectic work environment, slipping back into doing things the same old way.
Our solution – derived from The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande – is to provide simple checklists that reinforce the knowledge gained on a course and help it to become a habit. With the discipline to start this on the Monday morning after the course, it can quickly start to develop the right habits.
4. Diverse teams
We are all different. Members of a project team may all go on the same course and learn the same principles but then implement those principles in very different ways. We need to understand and capitalise upon that diversity and play to people’s strengths.
One of the most popular profiling models is DISC, an acronym based on the four main personality traits in the model (dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness). It’s a starting point for team members and stakeholders to understand each other’s perspectives and strengths.
5. Organisational maturity
Consistently delivering successful projects and programmes is about organisational culture. Without the right culture, individuals and teams cannot operate efficiently. This is what capability maturity models are all about, with the grandaddy of them all being the CMMI model from Carnegie Mellon University.
The Praxis Framework includes an integrated maturity model based on the CMMI. In fact, the Atul Gawande-inspired checklists are also based on this model. This means that all the time individuals are using the checklists to embed their good practice, they are also incrementally improving the capability maturity of the organisation.
This bottom-up, incremental evolution of organisational maturity is much more sustainable and cost effective than expensive, set-piece maturity assessment and improvement programmes. In a world where ‘agile’ is the buzzword of the moment, this is the most agile way of changing an organisation’s culture to one where individuals and teams consistently apply good practice and deliver better projects and programmes.
I’m sure there are other barriers to the implementation of good practice, and we constantly seek ways to identify and demolish these. The profession is made up of many competent individuals who have good practice to share. Our aim at Praxis Framework is to provide an open platform for people to contribute and share their knowledge and experience for the benefit of all.
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