Project Management

Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill

Michael O’Brochta, PMI-ACP, PMP, is a retired CIA project manager who currently works as President of Zozer Inc., a project management consulting company, and volunteers as Chair of the Project Management Institute's Ethics Member Advisory Group.

Bad projects abound, and research by Project Management Institute and others has provided useful insight into the underlying causes of bad projects. This paper looks beyond why projects go bad and explores why bad projects are so hard to kill. It explains how sunk costs, groupthink, escalation of commitment, and conflicts of interest contribute to keeping death-march projects needlessly alive.

Each of these behaviors is defined and illustrated using project stories from history (the sinking of the Titanic and the Concorde jetliner), project stories from the author’s own personal experience climbing some of the world's tallest mountains (Denali, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro), and project stories from business (Abilene Paradox and industry-funded soda studies). Some recently published research about the neural science underlying these behaviors is referenced. The impact of these behaviors is described and then linked to the undercutting of ethics, trust, leadership, and project success.

A list of actions is provided that project managers can take to help avoid being victimized by bad projects.


The Problem
Bad projects waste money and resources, divert attention from good projects, and undercut future projects by sewing seeds of doubt about organizational competence. And, since bad projects are all too common, there is a probability that…

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