Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Turning Around Failing Projects (Excerpt)

A couple of people have asked me about my Turning Around Failing Projects speeches.  Here is a small excerpt from my book Project Management That Works (a best seller published by AMACOM in 2008)

The statistics are staggering.  The propensity for project failure is enormous.  The general accepted failure rates range from as low as 59% to an unbelievable 94% of projects failing to meet their goals.  When studying project failure, the survey questions try to determine if the project met the desired scope, timeframe, or met all of the requirements that the project set out to complete.  However, these all take on new meanings when you consider something Rob Thomsett says in his book Radical Project Management:

"Projects fail because of context, not because of content"

If this statement is correct, then a large part, if not the entire 59% to 94%, of projects failed because of the improper setting of expectations.  They may have delivered the contents of the project but failed to deliver on the expectations of time and cost.  This drastically changes the landscape of the meaning of project failure.  Now, pair Rob's definition with PMI's belief that a poor project schedule or inadequate budget is the direct result of poor project management, and project failure rests on project manager's shoulders.

It is usually assumed that a project is being run in the first place by a trained project manager.  However, most of the time, someone is managing a project along with their other duties.   

How to Spot a Project that Is on Its Way Down

The first task in turning around a failing project is to learn how to recognize when a project is failing.  In many cases, you need to start with the first step of the classic twelve step process with the first step being identifying that there is a problem.  Although there are many reasons that projects may fail, there are some key indicators that projects are on the way down:

1)      Poor project planning or no plan at all. It has been said that a failure to plan is a plan for failure.  If you do not prepare for problems, they will surely derail you and your project.

2)      Disagreement on project requirements. A lack of good documentation of requirements or receiving different answers from different team members about the goals of the project muddies the waters and makes it difficult for a project to succeed, since no one is really clear on what success means in this instance.

3)      Lack of team involvement. Sponsors, stakeholders, or team members are not involved in team activities or are not responding to inquiries about the project. When people are not involved in the project it has no real life.

4)      Lack of a clearly defined end. Have you ever had a project last a year and every time you ask how much longer will the project last, the answer is just another two to three weeks? Failing to set a clear end point means a project will never end and if it never ends, it can never truly succeed.

5)      Unrealistic Demands.  If I said I needed you to rebuild theEiffelTower from the ground up for $30 in three weeks with five seven-year-old children as laborers, you would laugh.  As ridiculous as this may sound, real demands as ridiculous as this have been set for projects. A project with demands that can never be met is sure to fail.

6)      Failure to stop or plan again. Anytime a new project manager is assigned to a project, one of the first things that they want to do is to stop the project and assess where they are in the plan or re-plan in lieu of having a written plan.  A team that responds by saying they are almost finished or they are too busy to plan is a clear sign of a project on the way down. Every team needs to be able to stop and rethink the project's plan.

These are all general theories and a search of the Internet will bring up many sites that have early warning signs, causes for failure, or theories as to why projects fail.  The funny thing is that project managers seem to make the same mistakes over and over.  The whole point of a project management process and profession is to continually improve.  However, the reasons for project failure still continue to remain the same.  Unfortunately, unless the way the projects are being planned or how the expectations are being set changes, the results of the project are unlikely to change.

Someone Isn't Being Heard

One common reason for project failure is that communication has fallen apart and someone is not being heard. Consider the following example.

A project manager was assigned to a support project that had no project management structure.  The project was consistently not meeting the customer's expectations and senior management wanted a plan to improve customer satisfaction.  The project manager started to investigate the root causes of the satisfaction issues.  She met with the team as a whole and then individually.  As she met with the team members, the issues were becoming quite clear.  The causes of the customer satisfaction issues had already been identified by the team and they attempted to put action plans in place to rectify the problems.  The project manager investigated the options that the team had put together and saw that they were quite viable.  She compiled the information into a presentation and scheduled a meeting with her senior management.  She outlined the options and asked for a decision from senior management as to which option they agreed with.  They chose an option and she implemented the plan.  There was an immediate improvement in the timeliness of customer service which in turn led to an improvement in customer satisfaction.  As the improvements continued for the next couple of weeks, senior management brought the project manager in to thank her for a job well done.  They asked how she came up with the options she presented.  "I didn't," she replied.  "The team developed the options.  All I did was examine them for viability and present them to you."  The senior management team was in disbelief.  They wondered why the team hadn't presented the options to them before this.  The project manager replied, "They may have not understood the best way to present the information to you or how to approach you with their ideas.  But it was their ideas all along."

There are many reasons why the team may not have been able to communicate their options to the management in this example. Teams can develop behaviors based on small insignificant events.  At one point, a senior manager could have said "no" too abruptly and demoralized a team member.  That team member then begins to have the attitude that senior management doesn't care or will not listen to them.  A few episodes of that and groupthink can set in.

According to, groupthink is defined as:

The act or practice of reasoning or decision-making by a group, especially when characterized by uncritical acceptance or conformity to prevailing points of view.



decision making by a group (especially in a manner that discourages creativity or individual responsibility).


For a very serious example, groupthink was the cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.  This is no small statement.  Groupthink was the ultimate cause of one of the worst space tragedies in our time.  When the analysis of the disaster was complete, it was determined that the O-rings of the rocket booster were the cause of the explosion.  An engineer at the company that manufactured the O-rings had warned senior management that when the weather drops below a certain temperature, the integrity of the O-rings is compromised.  The engineer asked for more time from senior management to be certain.  The panel that was formed to uncover the reasons for the Challenger disaster found some startling information.  Originally, the company that made the O-rings recommended that the Challenger should cancel the launch until the temperature rose above 53 degrees, which was not expected to occur for several days.  NASA has already cancelled the launch a few times and was under enormous political and societal pressure.  They applied pressure to the engineering company.  Fearing the loss of future revenue and backlash from causing another delay, the engineering company began to question it's own data and began to rationalize their decision.  The engineering company asked for five minutes to discuss the situation.  During the five minutes that the company was isolated enormous pressure was put on the engineer about his data and analysis.  The question for the company became whether to choose safety and possible loss of revenue or risk and future revenue.  Inevitably, the pressure to conform outweighed the right decision.  When the engineering company called NASA back, they recommended that the Challenger should launch.  The official findings of the panel stated that the technical malfunction was the O-rings, the cause the disaster was groupthink. 

When anyone in management stops listening to their team members, disaster can strike at any time.  When a project is failing, first look to the communication.  Over 90% of a project manager's job is to communicate.  Whether it is documentation, meetings, one-on-one conversation, or phone calls, all are forms of communications.  When you refer to the list of key indicators, communication is central part of all of the items.  When communications stop, people stop being heard.  When team members are not being heard, project failure is sure to follow.

So what do you recommend to open communication? How do we prevent these kinds of failures?


Anonymous said...


Great show in CBus, OH this morning! Loved the way you brought PM concepts to life and addressed the many challenges in the profession in a very direct, matter-of-fact way.


Kirkland said...

Awesome presentations at the PMI Central Illinois Conference man. I'm going to pick up one of your books because of it. If anything, you left me glad that I chose the field. Keep it up man...