Projects Fail for the Same Reasons and Nothing Is Done about It. What about Your Organisation?

About a decade ago, when we analysed project failure, one response received was this: “Projects fail for the same reasons and nothing is done about it”. One wonders, what about today? Below are some root causes of highest-impact problems. Could it be some of those exist in your organisation? Are they being solved? If not, you may be able to make a high-impact difference by entering them into operational and project-level risk management processes.

A common way to go about solving complex challenges is to break the challenge down into manageable parts. Addressing problems in this way works fine when the problems are located within these parts. The trouble, however, starts when the dependences between the parts become too many to oversee. The trouble increases when there is insufficient budget to properly address all the parts or the implications of changes cannot be understood. One of the parts, risk management, should have ensured low project failure rates. Today, however, project failure rates are far too high.

A different approach is that of not breaking the challenge into manageable parts but to ask: What are the fundamental root causes creating highest-impact problems such as high project failure rates, ongoing fire fighting, repeated cost-savings initiatives, and/or clients moving away? This further led us to the following root causes (RC):

RC 1a: A crippling bureaucracy and overwhelming complexity
RC 1b: A crippling bureaucracy and value-destroying complexity, created by extensive use of exact/linear techniques for difficult-to-predict and unpredictable situations
RC 2: A communication gap between central organisations and the field
RC 3: Decisions no longer made by human beings
RC 4: Problem solving and solution identification within fixed boundaries

RC 1a: Root cause 1a is an experience employees, clients and projects get hit by again and again. To get it fixed, we need to understand what creates bureaucracy and complexity, which is what RC 1b is about.

Root cause of crippling bureaucracy and overwhelming complexityRC 1b: Crippling bureaucracy and value-destroying complexity are created when exact/linear techniques are applied extensively for difficult-to-predict and unpredictable situations. Observe that these techniques work really well for predictable situations. That is, when “if situation = X then do Y” types of instructions can be written. However, when this is not the case, which is common in complex environments, the number of “if situation = X then do Y” types of situations, together with their dependencies and changes, explodes at some point (see drawing).

RC 2: When employees search for policies, strategies, or standards and get 5, 10, or 30 hits for the same and similar documents and when employees find outdated or conflicting instructions regularly, a communication gap is likely to exist. This has consequences such as managers and project managers losing their jobs due them being expected to overcome this gap for their projects while they are in no position to bridge this gap.

RC 3: Over the past two decades, countless decisions have been “hardcoded” the “if situation = X then do Y” way into software tools, processes, policies and standards. In a dynamic environment, these decisions should be revisited and updated as the environment changes. But this is complex, time consuming and expensive. The matter is complicated when the organisation is located high on the S-Curve of RC 1b. In that case, the costs of the needed corrections are huge while cost savings pressures prevent such projects from being approved. Imagine the barrage of obstacles this creates for ongoing operations and innovative solutions.

RC 4: Fixing problems within a fixed boundary is a great thing. That is when the root causes are located within the boundary. When that is not the case, new trouble is bound to come.

What you can do

What you can do immediately is bring those root causes that you think exist in your environment into operational risk management and into the risk management of cross-organisational projects. This should lead to proper follow-up. If not, risk management itself needs urgent attention.

Sooner or later, additional information will be needed. The quickest way to learn more about the root causes and solutions thereof is available from the following:


About Eugen Oetringer

Driven to find Simple Solutions to Complex Challenges. Especially interested when earlier improvement attempts have delivered insufficient results.
This entry was posted in Avoiding Traps, Best Practice, Bridging the Gap, Bureaucracy, Change Management, Communication Skills, Complaint, Constructive Dialogue, Conversation, Effective Solutions, Governance, Leadership, Leadership Coaching, Leading, Lessons Learned, Management, Project Management, Quality Management, Risk Management, Root Cause Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Projects Fail for the Same Reasons and Nothing Is Done about It. What about Your Organisation?

  1. Reblogged this on Robson Lelles and commented:
    I do recommend this reading.


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