Pulling the plug on a project

Knowing when a project is going wrong, seeing the early warning signs of failure, is a valuable skill when mitigating risk and losses, as Amy Hatton reports


In recent years, project management has permeated sector after sector, embedding itself in the business vernacular as a synonym for commercial success. But look beyond the big statements and you’ll uncover a landscape that is far from beyond reproach.

KPMG, IBM et al have all published data in the past couple of years confirming ongoing project failure rates of up to 70 per cent. McKinsey & Company has uncovered evidence that 17 per cent of large IT projects veer so wildly off track that they threaten the very existence of the company running the project. Whichever way you look at it, the reality of project failure is a stubborn one.

Yet modern project management is probably one of the most educated, structured and skilled disciplines in business today. An abundance of frameworks, methodologies, training options and qualifications can be found in the space, offering the canny project manager ample opportunity to hone their skill sets and outperform their peers. So why, then, are we still failing to crack the failure nut? Could the answer be simpler than we might think?

One of project management’s most prominent advances in recent years is the seismic shift from the individual project to the holistic project portfolio. The rise and rise of project portfolio management (PPM) is now widely advocated as essential in ensuring that we don’t just “do” projects. What is more vital, enthusiasts claim, is that we do the right projects at the right time.

Like so many project related frameworks, PPM offers a rather grandiose term for what is actually a relatively simple concept: choose the projects with the strongest business case, monitor and adapt them according to the ongoing evidence, and you’re less likely to be explaining failure to the board later on.

Top seven reasons a project fails

For C-level executives and board leaders to make these decisions correctly, what is needed is visibility and coherence from the outset. Traditionally, the enemy of streamlined project delivery has been the prevalence of data silos, especially in major projects that cross global, cultural, financial and industrial boundaries. Faced with those silos, decision-makers do not have the information they need both to select sound projects, and to measure their ongoing performance accurately and make updated decisions accordingly.

Suppliers have, of course, jumped on this particular bandwagon with their usual gusto, developing all manner of data monitoring and reporting tools designed to provide the busy chief executive with touch-of-a-button access to real-time information. The rapid onset of the cloud and device technology brings them ever closer to the project baseline, facilitating portfolio strategies that are faster, more intelligent and better informed. Yet still the failure rates persist.

AGILE AND MICRO-FAILURE

Based on the principle of learning incremental lessons from phased delivery and review, agile project management appears to some to be a relatively new kid on the block. In fact the framework has been around for almost 20 years, but in the context of such persistent failure rates, agile is now coming into its own.

Not everybody is a fan, but there’s no denying the logic in the principle. Given the sheer scale of many major projects, it is feasible to assume that even if the portfolio decisions made at the outset are well judged, things can and do change. Those decisions should therefore be revisited frequently. It is just as important, according to agile principles, to consider what is not working and to rip off the plaster in those circumstances, equipping the project team to adapt. What’s more, the earlier you test the approach, the less investment you risk.

This concept of learning through micro-fail can avoid massive catastrophes by spotting smaller disasters sooner and faster. By taking that approach we can avoid further investment into projects that are simply not panning out as they should, and divert resources into other areas that might prove more profitable and productive.

That still doesn’t make it easy to pull the plug. Not only does the decision involve a necessary sacrifice of investments already made, it also goes against our inherent professional instincts. But an early admission of failure can also be a sign of commercial strength.

If we are to eliminate or at least drastically reduce project failure in the future, we have to know when to quit and these days we have the tools available to us to make those decisions. Spotting and cancelling the weak project demands strong portfolio management, informed by comprehensive and up-to-date information. It then demands the techniques to flex rapidly to an evolving environment to stay competitive and this is where agile might become the facilitator.

But it also demands a cultural change. The era of the project hero piloting in to save the dying project is past. Today, we must consider that if all the data from our project reporting indicates failure, then a failure we will certainly have. If we can hone the technique of using accurate data to pull the plug at the right time and complement that with flexible frameworks that equip us to redeploy resources, then we will face a much happier future in the world of projects.