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​The only two reasons for project failure

​The only two reasons for project failure

The project sponsor and the project manager will make or break IT initiatives, says Colin Ellis.

In a paper published earlier this month, Australian academic, Peter Shergold said: “Reading reviews of [project] failure can be a dispiriting exercise.”

I know what he means. Every time I sit down to read the latest project management survey, I’m filled with dread as to what new horror story will be contained within it. It’s like getting on a ghost train.

You know what to expect but have no idea whether it’ll be more of the same or scarier than usual. Mostly in project management, it’s more of the same, and that in itself is horrifying.

This is my profession. It’s the thing after my family that I’m most passionate about and it pains me to see it dragged through the mud time and again. Yet as a profession, it's clear that we’re not very self-aware.

We continue to look elsewhere for the root cause of the problems, going to great lengths to disguise them so as not to have to take any responsibility. That needs to change.

To fix something that’s broken, we first need to accept that it’s broken. Then we need to show determination to address the ongoing issues, rather than trying to peddle accreditation courses as the answer.

Primary causes versus real reasons

When you analyse the research (as I do in detail) it quickly becomes apparent that there are only two reasons that projects fail. The project sponsor and the project manager.

To illustrate that point, I’m going to use the 16 identified ‘Primary Causes of Project Failures’ from the PMI Pulse of the Profession report, released in January this year. Similar lists will be published in other surveys throughout the year, but at their core will be these two reasons.

For a larger version of this, please click here.

To put a much needed positive spin on our challenges, The Standish Group its 2016 Chaos Report identified three key success factors for projects as:

  • Executive sponsorship
  • Emotional maturity
  • User involvement

All true and all within project sponsor and project manager control. In the past, organisations have argued that the leadership ability of project sponsors and managers is hard to measure and provide feedback on, however with the introduction of ProjectNPS, that argument is no longer valid.

Project management needs self-awareness and investment

We’ve been throwing money at project management for years now and this year the Project Management Institute said it its aforementioned Pulse of the Profession report: “We saw declines in many of the success factors we track. Even more concerning, the percentage of projects meeting their goals—which had been flat for the past four years—took a significant dip.”

The report, however, then went on to say that to resolve this dip, "organisations [need] to shift their thinking and embrace project management as a strategic competency for success.”

This for me is a chicken and egg statement. Only when organisations witness great project management in action can it be seen as a strategic competency for success. However, only by putting time and money into developing that competency can it be truly great.

I see it in my line of work. I have year-long capability development programs with three organisations to develop a culture of project management, whilst for many others I've spoken to, those kinds of approaches will never be funded.

So what next?

Frankly, it’s time for other project professionals to join me in saying that enough is enough. We need more self-awareness across our profession. We need project people who care about people and organisational success rather than sticking certificates on a wall.

We need behavioural role models. We need good news stories, lots of them. We need project sponsors and project managers who build teams that let our personalities shine and we need to stop applauding continued failure.

Nothing will change unless we develop the leadership capability of those leading projects, the project sponsor and the project manager. Until then, the horror stories will continue.

What are you going to do to correct the two reasons for project failure and to help project management lift its game?

Colin Ellis runs his own project management and leadership practice and works with organisations to improve their ability to get things done. His first book The Conscious Project Leader is available for pre-order here and you can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter.

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