Project Management

Hubris and Happenstance: Why Projects Fail (Part 1)

PMI United Kingdom Chapter

Ian Whittingham, PMP is director of Calixo Consulting, providing project and program management expertise from initiation through to implementation, covering business transformation, workflow process re-engineering, and enterprise data integration. He is a regular contributor to You may contact Ian directly at

Their pairing makes them sound like a duo of Dickensian undertakers or vaudevillian villains, comically ominous, turning up when least expected, throwing us into disarray and despondency. They fill the vacuum of rational explanation as we grope to understand how events could have gone so horribly wrong in the immediate aftermath of some terrible tragedy. And even long after we have established an objective, impersonal accounting of why things turned out the way that they did, they often reappear in some vague, superstitious intuition about the fated outcome of extraordinary events.
When projects crash and burn--literally, sometimes--we look for rational agents to explain how failure occurred. We collect data and analyze processes, and we reconstruct the chain of events. We examine how and where mechanisms worked, and where they didn’t work. We look at participant behavior, we compare what they said they did with what they actually did (or did not) do.
In this way, we piece together a logical narrative of the underlying causes. But even after we have constructed what we think is a complete and accurate account of events, catastrophic failure often provokes the question: “But why this particular sequence?”, casting doubt on the certainty of our explanation--as if the disaster that occurred was inevitably and irrevocably fixed by forces beyond …

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