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Categories: Project Failure

Project management practitioners who read the conventional wisdom on those things that threaten project success may be "getting sold a bill of goods" (a U.S. colloquialism meaning to be deceived).
    While project management-types usually don't stay in the industry for long before witnessing a project crash-and-burn firsthand, the ability to accurately identify and clearly articulate the proximate cause of that project failure is often elusive, with individual prejudices coloring analysis. Quality engineers tend to name a lack of quality capability as the main reason behind project failure, while estimators tend to believe inaccurate cost baselines or estimates at completion are the culprits.
    I have a pretty clear idea of the main, if not only, cause of project failure, but before I name it, let me tell you what it isn't:
•    No Six Sigma
•    Lack of Agile project management
•    Failure to engage stakeholders (see my previous post)
•    Inappropriate leadership style
•    Too few Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential holders
•    Insufficient procedures or written guidance
    I could go on, but this list should be sufficient to contradict the majority of management writers who are asserting the key causal factor in project failure.
    So, what is the main causal factor? The project manager and/or project team made bad decisions.
    This is not simply a semantic difference. The ability to make good decisions is absolutely critical to any and all project outcomes, including the ability to meet success criterion. This ability is influenced by several factors, including:
•    The education/capability of the project team
•    Some level of luck, certainly, but mostly:
•    The availability of adequate project cost and schedule performance information, which almost always clarifies the best project decisions
    So important is the generation and delivery of cost and schedule performance information that any manager who eschews such information has automatically signaled their incompetence, and inappropriate placement in any position of authority.
    I'm essentially calling out the anti-cost/schedule performance system crowd. (You know who you are.) If you have ever argued against the introduction of an earned value system on principle, stop calling yourself a project manager because you aren't one. Of course, I'd love to hear from anyone disagreeing with me on this, so, please leave a comment.

Posted by MICHAEL HATFIELD on: December 17, 2008 11:43 AM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Lisa A. Grant
Here, here, I couldn't agree more. I continue to run into PMPs who don't believe in touching the tools. They are more focused on the roadblocks and relationships. Although very important, I'd say slipped tasks and slipping away budget dollars are roadblocks, and the best way to identify them is to track...the dreaded Earned Value. Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it.

Dennis Stevens
Agree with the premise. Big fan of tracking project performance. Quentin Fleming has another great article on this subject at I have a couple challenges with Robust EVM models in most companies. Read the first section of Quentin's article. It requires the project be fully understood, defined, and scoped to include 100 percent of the project effort. A problem clearly defined is half solved, right? Scope creep cannot be allowed. You also require a robust change management process with coordination of management and stakeholders at all levels. Let's do some research on perfectly planned projects with no scope creep, executive buy-in, and engaged stakeholders. Do you think the EVM managed projects will dramatically outperform the non-EVM managed projects? I doubt it. Any project that met these attributes would outperform most of the projects in many organizations today. Despite bringing reality into the picture, I am a huge fan of the TCPI concept. It should be quality adjusted and the remaining cost must be risk adjusted. We need cost and schedule performance - but for the less mature organizations, we need a system to implement that can be implemented and deliver directionally correct indicators of risks to the completion of the project.

Khaled Abouzeid, PMP
I agree with you that "The project manager and/or project team made bad decisions" is the main casual factor, which may threaten the project success. Off course no one can argue this conclusion, but I think that this is not the root cause of the problem, rather than being a symptom of it. The root cause could be lake of any of the five areas of expertise indicated in PMBOK, which are: - Lack of Project Management knowlege and skills. - Lack of Technical Experience. - Lack of Environmental Awarness. - Lack of General Management knowlege and skills. - Limited Interpersonal Skills. Regards Khaled Abouzeid, PMP

Cosy C. Joseph, PMP
Totally agree! Unfortunately the earned value system is rarely used, hence making it impossible to identify a project's true critical path. In my opinion, that inability to know whent those taks that are on your critical path are slipping, poor estimation, lack of sponsorship and lack of user participation/acceptance can also be key contributors (causual factors) of project failure. Kindest Regards, Cosy C. Joseph, PMP

Glen B. Alleman
While the Koppelman and Fleming article is useful, it is missing a critical element. The Techncial Peformance Measures of the deliverables resulting from the Work Package's effort measured by EV. The starting point for Techncial Peformance Measures can be found at Paul Solomon's book Performance Based Earned Value, is the next place. One of many Wayne Abba papers is another And the upcoming EVMS World and the passed IPM 2008 EV conference have many papers and training session on putting EV to work beyond the "driving in the rear view mirror" data that comes from SPI/CPI. Finally the current edition of the PMI College of Performance Management's Measurement News speaks to many of the issues of "simple" approaches to EV. As we struggle in the defense and space PP&C world to keep on schedule and on budget, the IT world struggles many times more by not yet understanding that measuring physical percent complete against the planned quality is the means of forecasting future cost and schedule. Every deliverables that is on-schedule and on-cost, but fails to meet the "planned" technical performance (qualtiy) means rework, missing features and a mortagage on the furture that is not revealed in SPI/CPI. Glen B. Alleman VP, Program Planning and Controls Aerospace and Defense Denver, Colorado

Geoff Warnock
Bad decisions usually come from incompetence or lack of information required to make a good decision. While the incompetence issue is wide and very subjective, the lack of information can be traced in most project mishaps to a lack of proper documented planning or communication of the plan. To me this reinforces the requirement for a solid debriefing / critique of the project performance following closure or discovery of an 'issue' during project execution. Much like the change control requirements and the corrective / preventive measures enacted, an objective review of decisions made during the project and their impact has to be completed with documentation of lessons learned (good and bad). I've been in the 'zero defect' environment a long time. It takes a while but people soon learn that its not about 'them' so much as it is about the 'process' and the desire to make it better. Don't be so hard on 'bad decisions' - they are usually the firm foundation for experience and if handled correctly, can lead to good decisions later. No one makes 'bad' decisions on purpose (typically) so they should be open to critique and self-improvement.

Mark Pickering
Decisions at the time you make them are neither good or bad. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we judge the resulting impact. Decisions have to be made usually with incomplete information as this is a consequence of achieving maximum concurrency and minimum timescale, the root of real competitive advantage. To make decisions Project managers must have two main competences. 1. Complete understanding of the end to end process and the critical activities to achieve the desired outcome. (This allows an understanding of the underlying risks). 2. To facilitate the organisation in bringing to bare all the knowledge and experience it can muster to the decision in hand (Managing and developing concensus is not easy but essential). As projects demand increasing levels of complexity the use of techniques such as EVM become ineffective even for expert users.

James Wilson
Michael, I understand you are trying to sell books or prove a point or whatever, but if I went into my Senior Leadership Team and stated that each of the offending Managers is incompetent, I would loose a great deal of cooperation, respect, and possibly even my job. I would encourage you in your posts not send a message that might get picked up by students or junior project managers that could cause issues. That said, I am most certainly knee deep, rather neck deep in trying to get our organization to engage in the basics of project management so we can make good decisions. I have very skilled, very senior executives who are not playing ball; however, I do know that they are on my team, and our long term goals appear to be 100% aligned. We just see different ways of getting to the same place. It is a hard road, but if successful, with be immeasurably rewarding. I would suggest that people quietly recognize these organizational issues and work diligently to build cooperation, team work, and executive support to turn the tide. Not easy to do.

Michael Hatfield
Okay, I'd like to comment on the commenters. For James, I'm not advocating taking an adversarial or belligerent stance towards your superiors at work. But they are human, and humans make mistakes. In a project environment, eschewing Earned Value is a mistake -- there's no two ways about it. And a project team given to mistaken decisions isn't going to be very successful. It's entirely up to you to draw the line between the benefits of a harmonious project office and the dangers introduced by making bad decisions. And, since I am trying to sell books (or whatever), my recently released book, Things Your PMO Is Doing Wrong (PMI Publishing, 2008)actually addresses the exact scenario you described in your posting. For Mark, I respectully but copletely disagree with your sentence "As projects demand increasing levels of complexity the use of techniques such as EVM become ineffective even for expert users." Ineffective compared to what? Taking polls? Comparing budgets to actuals? There is simply no better way of capturing cost AND schedule performance data (Critical Path only does schedule) than Earned Value. But don't take my word for it -- check out the College of Performance Management's Earned Value Management World conference in Naples, Florida this May. I also disagree with the assertion that decisions are neither good nor bad when they are made, but that argument would be much more enlightening if we could have it over a beer. As for Lisa, Dennis, and Khaled, thanks much for your words. It's people like y'all that make writing about Project Management fun for me. --Michael Hatfield, PMP

Luc Wijns
To me, it is quite obvious that information supports good decisions. As such, EV indicators are of critical importance to me. However, EV indicators alone are not sufficient.

I also developed some mechanisms (for IT projects) to easily quantify the level of ever returning generic project risks and I included means to follow up on scope & quality changes as well. As such, I can subscribe to both the words of the initiator of this discussion as to some of the comments on it.

Another remark I have is that there doesn't exist a one-fits-all approach. Many depends on what is important to the organizations requesting the project. Or should we invest in things that are not of interest for our customer ?

Linda Sepeda
I agree with what you say, but would like to take the analysis one level deeper. Without a cost and schedule, it's impossible to tell where the project really is. It's also impossible to create any sort of reasonable cost and schedule without having a set of requirements. How can anyone estimate an unknown?

If the requirements are vague, as in a totally new sort of undertaking, an estimate can be created. Since the estimate is almost certain to be incorrect because the requirements aren't really known, the method of arriving at the estimate can be documented with assumptions.

Hi, I think you are right in general, but I'm not sure about Agile and PMP. I think these two factors aren't critical for project success.

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