Project failure: a series of overs and unders and how to avoid them

BalanceOver ambition, under estimation, over expectation, under engagement, over optimism, under investment, over simplification. These are just a few of project management’s overs and unders. This article is all about identifying and avoiding them. 

I was on a flight re-reading a Times newspaper supplement on project management and it was talking about some of the successful and less successful major infrastructure projects the UK has seen over the last 10 years or so. There was a lot of talk about the UK being a lot more project savvy in this space but nobody drew out any lessons or learning points for those of us running or aspiring to run less grand day to day business projects. 

The lead article started out with a couple of basic statements:

“At its most fundamental, project management is about people getting things done” (Dr Martin Barnes)

“Project management is a set of processes and techniques which, if they are applied properly and logically, there is no reason why a project should fail” (Dayner Proudfoot). 

On the face of it, these are simple statements with a ring of truth about them. Danger “over simplification”! 

I’ve come across plenty of project managers that just get on with getting things done. No structure, no approvals, no plan but plenty of consequences and often not good ones. 

But surely, the second statement counters that? Danger “under engagement”! I’ve seen many project managers following the manual by rote. Their heads are so stuck in their MPP file they forget to talk to people. 

The objective of project management is getting things done, but in a controlled and approved manner with the right engagement. Yes, project management has a set of processes and techniques that need to be applied properly. The properly bit is the people engagement. 

I’m a great believer in keeping project management simple – just see the infographics in my last two weekly blog posts (Simple project management that works and Simple project management that works – part 2). But always remember my mantra:

Projects are delivered by people, for people, to people and impacting people. 

So, having warned on over simplification of the profession and under engagement with the people, how do you avoid the others?

Over ambition and over optimism

These are often related or hard to distinguish. Were BAA over optimistic in expecting to open Heathrow’s Terminal 5 at full capacity from day 1 without any significant issues or were they just over ambitious. They were certainly a lot less ambitious when they opened the new Terminal 2. 

And that is your avoidance lesson. Challenge your ambition and optimism. Learn from past experiences – yours, your colleagues and those of people in your network. Don’t be affraid to ask questions. I often run what I call ‘black hat’ days on projects. I get the team, key stakeholders and trusted outsiders together to brainstorm what could go wrong and how we’d deal with it. 

You have to confident in your abilities to be a successful project manager – just don’t get carried away by the hype. Not sure what I mean? Watch an episode of The Apprentice and you’ll soon get the picture. Over inflated egos are a huge risk!

Over expectation

This can occur in many areas of the project. The most commonly identified is over expectation on the part of the business. They want it all, in double quick time and all on a shoestring. This can be hard to avoid and tricky to manage, especially if you are relatively inexperienced. The key is your preparation. Ensure you have a full list of detailed requirements mapped to a clear set of deliverables, each with clear acceptance criteria. Then back it up with a rigorous and fully costed plan. Then give nothing away without clear acceptance from the business of the consequences. 

But the business are not the only ones guilty of over expectation. Can your team really deliver what you are expecting of them? Do they have the proven capabilities required to deliver. Can they sustain the   workload/pace? Beware your own expectations. Validate them. Look for evidence they can be met. 

Finally, have you managed your team’s expectations including work load, opportunities, remuneration, location and ways of working. Have you set them or have you taken over a team? Do you know the expectations you’ve inherited. I always seek to do the best for my teams in every aspect I can, but I always try to under promise and over deliver. Fewer people get disappointed that way. 

Over simplification

We have already discussed over simplification above. Project management would be simple if only people weren’t involved! But hey, that’s where the fun comes in because life is all about people. 

Just as we must beware simplifying our view of project management, we must beware of over simplifying what the project is trying to deliver. How do you do that? Break what you are delivering down into individual things at the lowest level. Then understand the challenges and interdependencies in delivering each of them. That’s a great start. 

Under estimation

Project managers, like most people, tend to be optimistic – at least when thinking about how much they or their team can deliver. So there is a natural tendency to think things can be delivered quicker or more easily than they can in reality. So individual tasks can often get under estimated.

Then there is the unknown.

 yesYou see, you know what you know.


yes-noThen there are some things that you know that you don’t know. These are thing you plan tasks to find out about. For example, until you have the design of something you can’t work out the detailed cost of producing it.

no-noBut then there are the things you don’t know that you don’t know (that’s not a typo!!). These are the unexpected things you find when going through your project. Say you project was to build a warehouse. You have the design and the construction specifications etc (the known’s), and you might build in some contingency in case there are problems when you start digging oyt the foundations (the known unknown’s) but what if you start digging the foundations and find an archeologically significant burial ground (an unknown unknown). Get the picture?

Many projects have failed to recognise the scale of uncertainties they face and consequently under estimated the level of contingency they need to compensate for it. Sometimes the unknown unknown’s are so off the wall you just have to re-evaluate the viability of the whole project. But often, they should have been at least vaguely known unknown’s rather than the complete surprises they turn out to be.

Under engagement

We touched on under engagement earlier but I want to add one further point. Most people think of engagement issues in terms of the business, the sponsor, the steering committee. But there are other key stakeholder groups. These could include regulators or trade bodies, the end customers or clients of the business, the shareholders.

But another key stakeholder group often forgotten is the project team themselves. Don’t forget, projects are delivered by people! So remember to engage and involve your team in the project management process. Get their input to the planning, to the decision making. They will be far more willing to support delivery if they are involved.

Under investment

Businesses often try to deliver projects on the cheap. They try to cut corners or squeeze deadlines. But quality costs money and requires proper investment. I don’t mean adding bells and whistles and making everything the best it could possibly be. It needs to be fit for purpose. It needs to meet the acceptance criteria for the deliverable. That is the mark of quality. So if the business says it wants to halve testing on a product or system, you need to clearly articulate the risks associated with that and get recognition that delivering poorer quality upfront may have subsequent costs in putting problems right later on.

Another area of under investment is in people. Whenever profits get squeezed training and development is in the top five things to get hit. This is because people development is often seen as a cost instead of an investment. All the surveys in to project management effectiveness and delivery, including the PWC survey quoted in the Times supplement,  show that the most successful organisations are those that execute their change programmes well. It therefore makes sense to invest in that change management and delivery capability. That’s why developing the project management skills of ALL key participants in project delivery, should be top of every organisation’s investment portfolio.

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  1. […] Allen Ruddock looks at the “overs and unders” that contribute to failed projects. […]

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