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The cost of bad project management

Benoit Hardy-Vallée
February 16, 2012

What’s more, it seems that this trend is here to stay. With an ever-growing need for accessible and integrated data, organisations require larger platforms to manage supply chains, customer relationships, and dozens of other crucial systems. Large software projects are now common in private and government organisations. Development is not slowing down, especially in emerging economies.

Considering the failure rate of these endeavours, a great deal of human effort and organisational resources likely will be squandered. So why haven’t organisations become better at managing projects, especially large ones in the IT sector?

Why most projects fail

A typical project management approach focuses on processes, policies, and procedures. Every task and step is described in detail by a set of rules. Many companies implement rigid processes that dictate behaviour and use statistical methods to control quality (such as total quality management, kaizen, lean management, and Six Sigma). Process guides and rulebooks support work practices, while quality control systems assess and improve these practices. Everybody is concerned about how to do the job, not about the job’s outcome.

In spite of these approaches, the rate of project failure does not seem to be decreasing. That’s because current project management tools, techniques, and theories account for the rational components of project management, but they overlook the emotional components. And these emotional factors account for a large part of a project’s success.

Project delivery requires quality control, scheduling, and budgeting. Yet controlling for these factors does not prevent project delays or failure. When projects fail, it usually can be traced to one or more of the following causes:

  1. Technical (technology developed, project management techniques)
  2. Individual (project leadership, scope management, communication)
  3. Stakeholder (user involvement, executive buy-in, goal specificity)

Typical project management techniques such as quality control, budgeting, scheduling, and critical path analysis are good at solving the first type of problem. Their record is less impressive for solving the second and third type of problem, primarily because these techniques are less effective at managing the human, emotional, and social factors at play in individual and stakeholder problems.

Open A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, and you will see an array of techniques for controlling quality, risk, budget, schedule, and scope. There is a chapter on project human resources management with some keys to select, develop, and manage a team. It shows how to develop a responsibility assignment matrix to define team members’ roles and a resource histogram to manage available hours. It indicates the importance of recognition and performance evaluations and suggests how to use interpersonal skills to resolve conflicts. It’s all spelled out in black and white, often with charts.

None of this is wrong. But again, these techniques mainly address rational factors such as planning and controlling. They only provide more methodologies and processes and more charts and graphs, which is hardly emotionally engaging for project team members or project managers, for that matter.

The problem with a single-minded focus on processes and methodologies is that once people are given procedures to follow, compliance replaces results. Everybody is concerned about how to do the job, not about the outcome if the job is done well.

Companies that take this approach do so for valid reasons: They can’t manage what they don’t measure. More importantly, they can’t let projects run without any direction, hoping for the best. However, by relying on managing only these rational factors, organisations fail to harness the power of human nature by engaging employees’ emotions.

To summarise, the rate of failure for projects has not really decreased and there’s a reason for that. It’s time to update project management not with more methodologies, but with more emotional content. Employees’ and stakeholders’ disengagement can make a project fail, but behaviour-based management can make projects succeed.

Benoit Hardy-Vallée
Benoit Hardy-Vallée (PMP, PhD) is an engagement manager at Gallup Consulting. He is an experienced strategic thinker with proven execution abilities in a wide number of industries, ranging from retail, manufacturing, utilities and IT to insurance, pharmaceutical and banking.
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