Executive Project Expectations… is failure baked-in?

While reviewing the Chaos report from the Standish Group and I saw updated statistics that, again, paint a simply dismal picture for IT projects. The Standish Group research shows:

  • 31.1% of projects will be cancelled before completed
  • 52.7% of projects will cost 189% of their original estimates

These are staggering statistics and are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  They are also well-researched and  illustrate a fundamental disconnect in how projects are scoped and managed; however, that’s not even close to the most frustrating part of the issue. Almost every C-level executive you talk to will say their projects are managed fairly well.

rosanneTo borrow from a classic Saturday Night Live skit where Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner) is spoofing Soviet Union news media about the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, “Nothing is wrong here. Especially near the nuclear reactor.

It takes something truly extraordinary to rise to level of concern for executives. How is it possible to reconcile that so many projects fail or double in cost, but are managed fairly well? How can these two extremely divergent perspectives coexist? The most obvious conclusion is that project failure and overruns are already baked into executive expectations.  While this may be a scary notion, it makes sense when you consider the fact that project success rates have remained largely unchanged over the last 20 years, even with the coming of organizations like PMI (the Project Management Institute) and a myriad of new project management tools and processes. I mean, if a seemingly unchanging percentage of project failure always occurs, then executives had better expect it.  Executives are left thinking, “Sure projects fail.  They always have and they always will, so nothing is wrong here, especially near the nuclear reactor.”

Then something truly confounding happens in the minds of executives.  They conclude, “I’m already investing enough money, resources, and time on this.  I’m not changing anything.  Not even if it can increase my likelihood for project success.”  Simply put, it’s the devil they know, so they leave it alone.

Not every executive fits this mold.  There are a few who always feel the need to do better.  Others find the need to do better in periods of extreme crisis or when business stresses are low enough to risk something new (a rarity).

To accept this level of project failure seems like total madness, but it is so damn consistent and pervasive that it’s hard to argue against.  Why have new project management tools and processes not changed the success rate of projects?  Don’t believe for a second that you can rationalize this by saying that while tools and processes have improved, projects have become bigger and more complex. Think about it; there is a common factor that everyone keeps ignoring or tries to work around, it’s people.  It’s the executives, the project managers, the technical teams, everyone involved in projects.  To put it bluntly, people are the problem.

Relatively recent advances in neuroscience show that people are remarkable hardwired and have very specific cognitive limitations. These limitations have actually enabled people to survive, even thrive, in the past but they work against us in many ways when trying to manage complex projects.  Only those who truly learn to think about projects differently can improve project success rates. Processes and tools are great, but the evidence shows that these things do not make a real difference in project success rates. The key is that people need to hone their critical decision-making capabilities so they support the task of complex project management.  They need to be trained at a limbic level so they can develop the ability to properly manage project decisions at an almost instinctive level.  They need to adopt specific practices, not processes, to deal with everything that can negatively impact a project.  They even need to adopt specific practices that help them find and act on opportunities that accelerate and improve project success.  This is not natural for most people.

At Think we credit our very high project success rate on the fact that we are highly selective (look for exceptional critical decision making traits in people) and train our project managers to think about projects differently.  Bare-Knuckled Project Management (BKPM) is a state of mind.  It is a methodology that first trains, then re-wires, the minds of project managers to help them make the right decisions on projects.  BKPMs do dramatically increase the success rate of projects.  It’s not magic, it’s hard earned and it’s repeatable.

One of our biggest challenges is in explaining to executives that they don’t need to settle for such lousy project success rates. It sometimes feels more like a religious battle than a practical discussion about project management, but it is beginning to catch-on.

Let’s fix this!  Let’s start thinking about projects differently and drive success rates through the roof. There is no reason to accept so much failure.