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Project Failure and Future Project Success

I was at a Major Projects Association breakfast event on sharing stories of project failure and what we’d learned to help future projects succeed. It was a frank discussion, with many personal examples from the inside, including mine on the Failure of FiReControl. However I’m not reporting on any of those because that’s against the spirit of the event. What I’m writing about are the common threads, and some things the room thought we could do about them.

The session was brilliantly chaired by Sir Robert Walmsey, a retired Admiral and a former chief of defence procurement, and before we started he gave us a benchmark for project failure. It wasn’t the old triangle of time, cost and quality but rather whether or not we delivered something of benefit.

Commonalities in Project Failure

This is not an exhaustive list, see also the common causes of project failure from the NAO. What we spoke about in the room were

  • Failure of political will/Executive authority
  • Not being responsive to feedback
  • Project vision not being properly linked to the business strategy (or military mission in defence projects)
  • Weak or missing assurance
  • Clients who didn’t understand what they needed or have the capability to direct a project
  • Lack of self awareness in what was possible or likely

What these observations have in common was a shared acceptance that they featured in multiple project failures. Most of them are also things that we can do something about as senior leaders of Change.

Project Success

To a great extent these common threads follow Kotter’s eight steps, although not 100%. There are some simple things that we can do early in the process of initiating new projects to help this. Some of it is in educating the senior echelons, and the not so senior ones, on what good looks like in projects. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority produce rather a lot of guidance on this, and much is easily digestible, like the Art of Brilliance.

The other part, once we’ve got the delivery experience in early enough, is to set a clear understanding of what the problem is we’re solving, and what the client thinks good looks like. Only with that in place can we start to co-design solutions. Those solutions need thoroughly grounded in reality, and those of us who are project delivery professionals need to help the others understand what the art of the possible is, and that they need to crawl before they can walk.

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