How to cure a world of project failure

Project management - how to avoid failure

It is often asserted that 70% of projects fail. Usually by software providers, consultants and training companies looking to sell you their wares. I read some research conducted 10 years ago that suggested the figure was relatively accurate in the area of “lean improvement”.

Yet, our research (the Change Makers), suggests that the numbers don’t add up. What we see is organisations, and project managers, working their proverbial socks off. Delivering complex and often under-funded projects. And they do deliver them!

There is a qualifying statement that is often forgotten when people talk about the 70% failure statistic. Projects fail to deliver “the original objectives”. Leaving this out of the statement is misleading.

When you are launching a project, you talk to suppliers, customers, senior managers and staff delivering the existing service/product. Unless you have a personal agenda, a revision of the original objectives can, and should, be expected. Then there are a host of factors that affect the perceived success or otherwise of a project. Factors such as:

  • Unrealistic initial expectations
  • Confusion over deliverables
  • Stretched timescales
  • Forgotten priorities with staff turnover.

However, this is an irrelevant discussion because, as I mentioned earlier, most projects deliver! Project managers have access to better training. This, and a bloody-minded attitude mean that, project professionals deliver by whatever means possible.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is the last part of that statement – “by whatever means possible”. Individual pride, peer pressure, top-down scrutiny and lots of adrenalin-fuelled late nights result in delivered projects. Heroic project managers abound.  Depending on their personal resilience, they can run from one project to the next, fixing, resurrecting and saving the world! Which leads us to the two key costs of this approach:

  1. Organisations are suffering from high levels of long-term, stress-related, illness.
  2. Project workers are worrying they’re not capable.  Worrying about their career prospects and worrying themselves straight to the GP surgery!

But, the real cost is the unsustainability of this approach. Overloading your best people leads to errors at best and to scenario 2 (above) at worst.

What you need is an “ology” – a methodical approach to projects. But you don’t want just any old “ology”, but one tailored to fit the needs of your unique organisation.  The benefits of developing an “ology” that is shared, understood and acted upon across your business are self-evident:

  • Projects can be mobilised effectively.
  • Roles and responsibilities are clear and can be understood by all.
  • Late joiners to the team can be deployed quickly and smoothly.
  • Stakeholders can engage with confidence.
  • Project PR and reporting is woven into the existing fabric of the organisation.
  • Project leaders can focus on the activities that make a difference.
  • Delivery is more assured.

We developed “DELTΔ Team Based Project Management” to help our clients install their own “ology”. The DELTΔ approach works because it doesn’t squeeze the life out of the creativity and innovation in your business. As leaders in business, you want your teams to approach projects with flexibility, agility and rigor.  You recognise the key part that people play in projects. But the frequent clashes between stakeholders is frustrating.

That is why the DELTΔ approach starts with a rapid diagnosis phase.  You want the perspective of all key stakeholders before you spend time, money and other valuable resources. This provides clarity and unity of purpose. Then it is critical to engage the right people in the planning phase, to ward off any hostility, whether that be overt or covert. From there, leaders can do what they do best. Drive through the change and develop “Change Makers” to lead future change.

Developing a bespoke version of this approach and sharing it with all staff involved in projects is where the magic happens. When I started work with Andersen Consulting in 1992, we spent 6 weeks learning the ‘ins and outs’ of their “ology” (Method 1). It seemed a bit excessive at the time, but the results spoke for themselves. At the start of week 7, thirty new consultants were deployed to work on projects across the UK. We were woven into teams delivering mission-critical projects for international clients and government bodies. Yes, we were still a bit green and yes, we made a few mistakes along the way, but we never felt disempowered. We always knew there was someone around who could get us back on track and focused on delivering. The “ology” was shorthand for quality and coordinated, combined, effort.

Would you like to know more about DELTΔ Team Based Project Management and how it could help you on the next stage of growth in your business? Just click here, or drop a line to

Simon will be presenting at an upcoming webinar ‘3 key reasons projects fail and what you can do about it’ on 11 November. Register for the free webinar now!

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