Planned failure – a project management paradox
The other day a friend and I were talking about a failed process improvement initiative in his organisation. The project had blown its budget and exceeded the allocated time by over 50%, which in itself was a problem. However, what I found more interesting was that the failure was in a sense planned – that is, given the way the initiative was structured, failure was almost inevitable. Consider the following:
- Process owners had little or no input into the project plan. The “plan” was created by management and handed down to those at the coalface of processes. This made sense from management’s point of view – they had an audit deadline to meet. However, it alienated those involved from the outset.
- The focus was on time, cost and scope; history was ignored. Legacy matters – as Paul Culmsee mentions in a recent post, “To me, considering time, cost and scope without legacy is delusional and plain dumb. Legacy informs time, cost and scope and challenges us to look beyond the visible symptoms of what we perceive as the problem to what’s really going on.” This is an insightful observation – indeed, ignoring legacy is guaranteed to cause problems down the line.
The conversation with my friend got me thinking about planned failures in general. A feature that is common to many failed projects is that planning decisions are based on dubious assumptions. Consider, for example, the following (rather common) assumptions made in project work:
- Stakeholders have a shared understanding of project goals. That is, all those who matter are on the same page regarding the expected outcome of the project.
- Key personnel will be available when needed and – more importantly – will be able to dedicate 100% of their committed time to the project.
The first assumption may be moot because stakeholders view a project in terms of their priorities and these may not coincide with those of other stakeholder groups. Hence the mismatch of expectations between, say, development and marketing groups in product development companies. The second assumption is problematic because key project personnel are often assigned more work than they can actually do. Interestingly, this happens because of flawed organisational procedures rather than poor project planning or scheduling – see my post on the resource allocation syndrome for a detailed discussion of this issue.
Another factor that contributes to failure is that these and other such assumptions often come in to play during the early stages of a project. Decisions that are based on these assumptions thus affect all subsequent stages of the project. To make matters worse, their effects can be amplified as the project progresses. I have discussed these and other problems in my post on front-end decision making in projects.
What is relevant from the point of view of failure is that assumptions such as the ones above are rarely queried, which begs the question as to why they remain unchallenged. There are many reasons for this, some of the more common ones are:
- Groupthink: This is the tendency of members of a group to think alike because of peer pressure and insulation from external opinions. Project groups are prone to falling into this trap, particularly when they are under pressure. See this post for more on groupthink in project environments and ways to address it.
- Cognitive bias: This term refers to a wide variety of errors in perception or judgement that humans often make (see this Wikipedia article for a comprehensive list of cognitive biases). In contrast to groupthink, cognitive bias operates at the level of an individual. A common example of cognitive bias at work in projects is when people underestimate the effort involved in a project task through a combination of anchoring and/or over-optimism (see this post for a detailed discussion of these biases at work in a project situation). Further examples can be found in in my post on the role of cognitive biases in project failure, which discusses how many high profile project failures can be attributed to systematic errors in perception and judgement.
- Fear of challenging authority: Those who manage and work on projects are often reluctant to challenge assumptions made by those in positions of authority. As a result, they play along until the inevitable train wreck occurs.
So there is no paradox: planned failures occur for reasons that we know and understand. However, knowledge is one thing, acting on it quite another. The paradox will live on because in real life it is not so easy to bell the cat.