Why Some Projects Will Always Fail

Why Some Projects Will Always Fail

Accomplished project managers understand that it’s not always smart to play it safe.

Most people with project management experience are familiar with Cobb’s Paradox. The term was coined when Canadian Martin Cobb was serving as secretary of the treasury board in the mid-90s and famously asked the question:

“If we know why projects fail and we know how to prevent their failure, why do they still fail?”

In his recent article for ExecutiveBrief.com, director of Risk Doctor and Partners David Hillson commented:

“This sounds good, but is it really possible? And is it even desirable? Do we want to limit the scope and ambition of our projects to only those that we are certain can succeed? Or will this reduce innovation, creativity and appropriate risk-taking? A spectator at a recent Cirque de Soleil performance was heard to say: ‘I want to see them do things that they can only do half the time.’ Isn’t this what every project sponsor or portfolio manager should be saying?

In fact, this is exactly what I’ve always claimed about true innovators. They throw a bunch of ideas against the wall and watch to see if one sticks. They fully expect that most of their projects will never see the light of day – it’s just part of the process. But then when one does stick, it’s wildly successful, so it’s worth all the failures it took to get there.

Hillson said that understanding how to prevent failure cannot and should not prevent it from happening. In addition to the innovation argument, he mentions several rationales that I’ve paraphrased here:

All projects are risky

Uncertainty is built into every project because each one is unique and complex, based on assumptions and dependencies, and involves fallible human beings. Although the degree of risk might vary, the zero-risk project does not exist. This means that the probability of success for any project is less than 100 percent.

Most projects include unmanageable risk

We aim to manage risk in our projects, but risk management can never be 100 percent effective. As a result, some unmanageable risks will occur on every project, challenging our ability to meet schedules, budgets or performance requirements. While obviously not the ideal scenario, on some projects, the effect of unmanaged risk will be so significant that these projects will fail.

Projects should exist in a risk-balanced portfolio

The concept of risk efficiency should be built into each project portfolio, with a balance between risk and reward. A balanced portfolio will include some high-risk/high-reward projects as well as projects that are nearly guaranteed to succeed. It’s natural that projects in the former group do not always deliver the hoped-for results.

Failure to learn

Human beings are adept at repeating our mistakes. We don’t examine past failures to learn lessons for future projects, and so we fail again for the same reasons. The level of comprehension regarding why a project failed may vary, but what’s consistent is human unwillingness to dig under the surface.

As many executives are familiar with Cobb’s Paradox and prepared to wield it against project managers from whom they expect bulletproof results, PMs should be on guard.

As usual, communication is your most effective weapon. At the start of every project, manage expectations. Help your sponsor and other stakeholders understand that all projects carry risk, and that your goal to deliver the best return on investment may increase that risk. Tell them that you will do your best to make decisions to minimize the risk as much as possible, but just like in life, nothing in project management is certain.

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  • Project managers may understand this…but does management? Usually when a project is turned over to a project manager, the expectation — regardless of communications — is that the project will succeed because there is a need for it to succeed.

    To get to “failure is okay” means the success and failure criteria need to be understood by management — and the project manager doesn’t get dinged on a performance review — including the salary and bonus — because of the failure. In most places, that’s rare, though I hope in the comments people will prove me wrong!