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Projects fail when they lose touch with reality

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This well attended event was held at the Mercure hotel in Tunbridge Wells on Tuesday 28th May 2013.

Graham Oakes started his presentation with a question: What is failure?  There are many examples of failed projects, but few project managers would state on their CVs that they worked on a failed project!  Success or failure is dependent on stakeholder perception.  The oil industry expects only 1 in 9 test wells to produce commercially viable quantities of oil, i.e. an 88% failure rate, but this is accepted as normal. When building a shop, most people would expect only a 1% failure rate.

Graham’s experience of the computer games industry showed a distinct correlation between the lead time of declaring a slippage and the time to a deadline.  A three month slip was declared 3 months before the deadline.

The literature shows the common causes of failure: unclear objectives; unclear scope and requirements; lack of/poor sponsorship; unmanaged change (slippage one day at a time); unmanaged risks (often the undiscussables – the elephant in the room); poor communication and unrealistic estimates of cost, resources, and time.

If we know all this stuff, so why do we constantly repeat the same mistakes?  Graham argued that it is because we lose touch with reality, what is actually happening rather than what we hope is happening.

Much of project management is about building tools to help keep us in touch with reality, using gannt charts, base lines, schedules, risk analysis. But failure usually happens a long time before it becomes apparent. So why don’t we recognise failure earlier?

The problem is that people are not perfect; they can be overconfident and tend to oversimplify as we cannot possibly deal with the actual complexity of reality.  The tools we use such as gannt charts, stakeholder maps help simplify reality, but there is a danger that we get anchored in a false sense of reality.  As humans, we tend to avoid pain, avoid standing up to senior stakeholders to say they are wrong, accept unrealistic deadlines, and bury mistakes. We tend to have confirmation bias, where we look for reinforcing evidence to support our false view of reality. Also reputation bias, where we reinforce the same message, even when it is wrong – such as the Titanic is unsinkable!

People are built to lose touch with reality and it is important to recognise and acknowledge this fact.  So what can we do about this?

Graham discussed a number of strategies for keeping in touch with reality and avoiding failure:

Well structured project reviews, undertaken by independent ‘red teams’ to provide grounding checks and challenge our perception of reality. Graham’s experience is that such reviews surface problems earlier allowing time to manage problems and reduce slippage time. They give courage to project teams to ask for what they need, be it more resource, assistance or time. Project teams generally know of the issues, and project reviews help to surface them so they can be openly discussed with stakeholders.

Doing projects in smaller chunks, using agile techniques of two week sprints allows regular checks and prevents the team getting too far away from reality.

Use metrics to establish a base line to measure real progress.

Plan for change: Change is reality, expect deviations, so adopt working practices to cope with this, such as rolling wave planning.

Understand the boundary between projects and operations. Some activities are better undertaken as processes, others as a product life cycle.  Classify the activity and only use PjM when it is appropriate.

Communication plans are often focussed on telling stakeholders.  It is also important that they address the need to listen to stakeholders, to get feedback, to check reality.

Graham summarised that for project success, we need to keep in touch with reality. If we do, the bump, when things go wrong is less dramatic, and can probably be avoided.  Always watch reality and not the plan!

Please find copy of the slides below:


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