Having read Christopher Beam’s “Crime rates have plummeted over the last 20 years. Why aren’t we less scared?” I couldn’t escape the thought that just like our naturally biased views of crime rates, our attitude towards projects’ failure is based on unsubstantiated, biased, fear driven perception.

I still remember my first day on the job at a certain IT organization, where the CEO approached me and threw in my face the “fact” that project managers are useless because most projects fail. I suppose the point he was trying to make was that whether or not I do my job properly, I am most likely to fail. Not a positive and optimistic view-point to say the least!

So this is what I think…

Project failure/success is subject to two parallel universes. In the first universe, the “perception universe” most projects tend to fail and the success-to-failure bell curve is skewed towards the ‘failure’ end of the scale. And then there is the second universe, the “real universe”, where the distribution of projects is “normally” spread; some, but very few projects, suffer colossal failures; similarly, some, but very few, complete exceptionally well, while the majority of projects hover around a range of points where although some aspects are imperfect, they would still be classified as a success.

This, naturally, leads to the obvious question of “what is success“? Is “success” a binary value where the only options are ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Can a project be both successful (in some aspects) and a failure (in others)? Assuming that the definition of what constitutes a success (or failure) is a culmination of more than one variable (with the obvious variables of ‘time’, ‘cost’ and ‘Technical Performance’ being at the top of that list), is it not reasonable to infer that for the majority of projects, being a success or failure is nothing but a single dimensional view-point, and the true picture of the project (and indeed any project) is far more complicated and thus the proclamation that a project is a success or a failure requires a more detailed elaboration on the position and viewpoint of the person making this determination?

The analogy between crime rate and projects’ failure rate…

And this is the point where the analogy between our perception of the prevailing crime rate and our perception of the general rate of projects’ success can be better understood.

While the true crime rate, as objectively measured and published, is going down, we are still programmed to remember those news clips where actual incidents of criminal activities took place and have captured the public attention.  We remember the incidents and given the lack of any other contradicting or balancing news we tend to create a mental picture where crime features with all its ugliness. This exposure to negative news is further extended as we listen to journalists and media activists who, sensing our soft spots, use this as a leverage to create sensationalism which in most cases will appeal to the lower common denominator of their respective audience.

A similar phenomena is quite likely occurring in project-dome. While public deliberation on potential ways for improving project delivery is commendable, one has to wonder as to what degree current debates are driven by an objective desire to advance the general good. Is is possible that to some (large) degree, public debate is driven by individuals / organizations for whom maintaining the apparent (negative) perception will result in increased business and consulting opportunities? And even if this was not the only driving force behind the negative media, would it at least be plausible to suggest that despite the negative news (assuming for a minute they are correct) there is a whole undercurrent, and unreported-on dimension with a more positive, complimentary outlook?

At the end of the day, and as the level of maturity (both individuals and organizations) improves, it is likely that both universes (the ‘perceptional’ and ‘real’) will get closer and closer to each other. This is what we collectively ought to aspire to. The key to bridging the gap is education and critical thinking.  Project management related blogs should be leading this education drive by adopting a evidence-based approach  to this issue, and by highlighting not just the failed but also the successful projects, and no doubt there are plenty of them.

Think about it!

As usual, your comments and thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

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  9. Been thinking about this subject as I read “Fast and Slow” by D Kahneman, mentioned elsewhere on your blog. Seems we give far greater weight to failures that are fresh in our minds. The availability cascade http://tinyurl.com/availabilitycascade is mentioned in the book and I recognised it in project life. Something goes wrong and is talked about disproportionately, such that those risks are especially prevalent in people’s minds but others are relatively ignored. Senior people may hear about it and mention it, thus giving it renewed impetus and round the cycle it goes again.

    Kanheman’s advice seems to be to focus on the actual base rates (e.g. of project failures) and to carefully weigh up the quality of evidence (i.e. that any particular project is going to fail). Apparently this is closely related to Baynesian probability.

    It strikes me that your article and Kanheman’s ideas apply to probability forecasting (e.g. “I am 60% confident it will be done by January”) and individual project risk assessment as much as the overall judgement about project failure you mention. There are so many judgements in project management and plenty of ways to go astray.

    Responding to your observation about the non-binary nature of project success, I feel good about projects when they deliver enough to satisfy most stakeholders, within acceptable budget and despite reality intervening. I know the PRINCE2 business case offers a more mathematical definition but this is how I find it works out in practice. I think someone could write a whole other article on project perfection vs reality and what is “good enough”. And of course, they already have: http://tinyurl.com/perfectionsVsReality


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