Process This

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Process This

Categories: people, process, strategy

Not too long ago, it seemed that you couldn't read two articles on project management without one of them citing the purported failure rate of projects. Was it 50 percent? 80?! Some sort of "objective criteria" defined the failures in these studies — a certain number of days past deadline or a percentage over budget, for example.

You don't see those doomsday leads as often these days, and their validity was always a matter of debate. Definitions of success or failure aren't so neatly tied to simple metrics that don't take into account the many ways an initiative can deliver value. Of course, that's where self-appointed experts, consultants and vendors make a good living, offering their solution to your project management problem.

But forget failure rates and packaged solutions for a minute. You know, the world's best baseball players walk back to the dugout having failed almost 70 percent of the time. And they don't throw away their equipment or change their technique each time. They've accepted the reality of their enterprise: small, spinning objects traveling more than 90 miles per hour are very difficult to hit.

To continue the analogy, project teams get thrown a lot of curves, from before the project even starts (unrealistic estimates) through the heat of battle (missing-in-action sponsors, conflicting directives, competing resources) to an often-hazy closeout (if they get there). Under these conditions, homeruns are hard to come by. A few bad-hop singles might even be deserving of celebration — and certainly not evidence of complete failure.

My point, of course, is not to say that late or over-budget projects should be accepted as inevitable by organizations. But it is more constructive to re-focus the failure conversation. No methodology or technology solution can wish project success into reality — unless it begins with people.

I've never interviewed a process. However, I have chatted with thousands of project leaders and team members over the years. And many of them confirm that their organizations are striking out on a consistent basis.

But the root cause of these failures does not necessarily map out directly to the particular method or tools their organizations employ. No, the problem is more often the dangerous disconnect between the organization's strategic goals and how those goals are — or aren't — translated into action.

The project teams know it and hate it, but they don't feel like they can do much about it. The customers sense it, and they're ready to do something about it, sooner or later. The senior managers know it, and they're doing everything they can to deflect it. And what of the top-level executives — the leadership? Well, too often, they're still waiting to be told about it, so they can hire an outside consultant, who may or may not get around to talking to the project team, to fix it.

If that sounds like sour grapes, or cynicism from the trenches, so be it. Perception becomes reality. And the truth bears repeating, again and again, until someone at the top hears it and believes it:

Processes don't perform projects; people do. Until people drive the processes, and not the other way around, there will continue to be unrest in the trenches — along with "experts" who make a good living citing the project failure rate, whatever it is.

Posted on: September 12, 2018 06:35 PM | Permalink

Comments (21)

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You make a very good point Aaron because Ive seen some that are under the impression that processes are self driven from within.

Thanks Aaron. It is certainly the people that drive value for an organization.

Great insight Aaron. I couldn't help but think of the pessimist looking at the glass half empty while reading this. Projects are big complicated beasts and if you want to find reasons to call one a failure you can almost every time. However if the project team at the guidance of the Project Manager stays focused on what is strategic about the project and drives to that end through the fog of project execution you can find success at delivering real business innovation.

Aaron, I agree with your statement "Processes don't perform projects; people do". But in most of the organizations processes are driving the people. Sometimes, they became more important than the people. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

If failed projects or mistakes made lead to future successful projects, shouldn't the net equity reduce the severity of failure for previous failed projects?

Thanks for sharing an insightful article.
I liked the subtitle "Processes don't perform projects; people do".

Great points and insights, Aaron. Thanks!

People, Process and Technology are integral parts of the project. People are in the center and bring the value.

Very interesting, thanks for sharing

A thought-provoking piece of writing. Thank you for sharing. Success is a process in itself and success comes from the right team and people :)

Thank you for sharing this insight.
Indeed we need people to drive processes in working towards the organisation's strategic goals.

You are right Aaron, processes don't drive people.

Thank you

Hi Aaron,
Thanks for your insightful post. You're absolutely right, it is very important to acknowledge (at least to ourselves) project failures or overruns or times we missed the mark. Once we do so, we can learn from them. We used to call these "Lessons Learned" & "What I'd Do Differently". This process increases our chance of future success, by acknowledging our mistakes, we are less likely to repeat our mistakes in the future.
Nice work.

Thank you for sharing this point of view

I think it all comes down to expectation management. Perhaps the projects are deemed "failures" because the outcomes desired are so far from the set of possible outcomes. How do we fix this? By having a transparent/honest conversation about the volume and quality of project/program execution. Particularly in the IT field, I have found that the teams are looked not as production systems but as just a department that is in a support function. If we can help the rest of the organization to see that we have a maximum capacity and a throughput just like any other team then we can address the problems with perceived project success criteria.

Thank you Aaron.... In the end, it is always the people, not the processes! Thanks for sharing...

Good Information

Great read. I always look at it like someone had to fail in order to succeed right? And that's how we grow and learn is from the mistakes we(collectively) make!

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