PROJECT MANAGEMENT: SCIENCE OR ART?
Why Do So Many Projects Fail?
Posted by Andrew Spencer on 15/02/2013
There are numerous Project Management methodologies out there; PRINCE 2 is the most scientific and rigid, with others - such as the Agile methodology - proving less rigid and more flexible, however usually just as formal in its application ...
passion for success and flexible thinking are key ingredients of project management
There are many, many tools available to help the PM manage their Project, including specialist online collaboration systems through to MS Project on a single machine. Both methodologies and tools have been developed over many years; so why do so many projects fail? One source indicated that between 30% and 70% of all projects fail totally; another indicated that only 1 in 8 IT projects succeed in all their objectives. Given the levels of investment in Project Management training, qualification, recruitment and deployment, this is a ridiculously high figure. Something is wrong somewhere!
It is easy to give many of the reasons why projects fail wholly or in part, but frankly most of these are excuses and should have been dealt with within the methodology applied, minimized, neutralized or eliminated. The typical reasons given for failure include lack of resources, lack of user involvement, inaccurate estimates, poor risk management, long or unrealistic timescales, poorly defined requirements, scope creep, no or little change control, poor testing and so on. The list is endless but every single one should be within the ability of the Project Manager to deal with - either themselves or by engaging others.
Given that all of the above can be dealt with through the right management of the Project, why do things still go wrong? I would argue that most Project Managers hide behind their chosen methodology - particularly those applying PRINCE 2 - and don't actually deal with the issues. For projects to succeed, all obstacles - such as the ones indicated above - have to be overcome and indeed can be with the right levels of commitment, passion and above all a willingness to think and act laterally. Ignoring dogma, Project Management is just as much an art form as it is a science.
Let's look at a couple of illustrations; two Projects for which I was the Project Director:
The first Project had the objective of implementing a business system in a reasonable but fairly tight timeframe and against requirements that had been fairly well identified, at least in outline. The system that was being implemented was off the shelf and subject to significant amounts of configuration (as opposed to development) to suit the clients requirements. The Project Management methodology of the supplier was PRINCE 2 and we, the client, accepted that this methodology would be applied. To cut a long story short, the application of document creation inherent in that discipline caused significant scope creep, endless discussions and delay in production of the necessary documentation to move the Project forward.
Believe it or not, within three weeks of the start of the Project it was three weeks behind the schedule that the supplier had indicated was possible! This was unacceptable and after a painful discussion with the supplier, it was agreed that the project either regained all time lost within a couple of weeks or it would be cancelled and also that the Project would move to a more flexible way of working, using prototyping, agile style techniques and that the Project Manager would lighten up over the procedures he was using! The Project got delivered on time because the commitment levels were raised. The target end date became the absolute and everything had to be bent to this aim. Above all everyone got really behind the project and willed it to succeed rather than see it cancelled.
The second illustration of Project Management as an art is a bit different. This essentially involved building a business from scratch, establishing an industry leading call centre and retail operation along the way. A small team of us - 6 in total - were given 4 months to build our little software business into a retail operation numbering 160+ people, taking the team from offices of 1,200 sqft to brand new offices (to be refurbished in the timeframe from a derelict space) of 12,000 sqft. We had no call centre system and no furniture - in fact we had nothing other than our transaction processing system. Tendering for and implementing a call centre system for a centre handling millions of calls a year in 4 months in theory is not possible and we had everything else to worry about as well. And by the way, the go live date was absolutely immovable so we either succeeded or we failed spectacularly.
This was a seemingly impossible task however we succeeded. The Project Management was incredibly flexible with team members interchanging roles frequently and we used nothing more than MS Project to help us. We got a bit of outside help on the telecommunications side and sourced a call centre system (one that was revolutionary at the time and one on which Microsoft lavished a lot of attention being the first large scale implementation of Microsoft based IP telephony worldwide, but that is another story) and in 3 weeks and it was implemented on time. Everything else made it as well and the call centre opened 30 minutes late but on the right date! Having said that, we did bar one supplier Project Manager from the project for not being flexible enough to cope with the extreme demands of the project.
In summary, Project Management succeeded because we did not believe in failure - we had to succeed. We were constantly thinking laterally in solving problems and incessantly revising our requirements, timescales and expectations in order to make the project work. We really, really wanted to succeed.
So in conclusion, I would argue that along with the many good things in all existing PM methodologies there is room for believing in flexible thinking, breaking the rules, mixing and matching tools and also having the passion and will to succeed. It would be good if Recruitment Consultants and the Companies employing those Consultants also had this thinking and were not so over reliant on paper qualifications and square pegs in square holes ... and how about looking at the achievements of the individual as well?
Until next time ...
During Andrew's extensive business career he has worked in a wide cross section of companies, specialising in the creation of contact centres and business systems, software development, telecommunications and project management. Andrew's key skills are:
Business planning and strategy
Matching technology to business needs
Software development and implementation
Designing and implementing business systems
His work has included sourcing and implementing a new integrated telecoms system for National Energy Services, designing and project managing a new IT and telephony structure for the Greyhound Racing Association, and directing technology development for Wembley plc.