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Why is poor project performance acceptable?

Jed Simms
January 28, 2016

The philosophy of the project world appears to be “If it’s broke, don’t fix it.” Poor project performance is to be expected and accepted. For example:

  • Only expecting two out of the three Iron Triangle measures to be delivered.
  • Seeing ‘asking for specificity from the business’ as unrealistic.
  • Managing stakeholder expectations (down) throughout the project, and so on.

Each year the Standish Group publishes its project performance statistics, which barely improve year-on-year. However, the general reaction to the revealing of continued poor project performance is acceptance while questioning if they are measuring the right measures, which they aren’t. In any other industry there would be uproar at the perpetuation of these poor levels of performance, but not in the project fraternity.

The project fraternity’s response is more training, promoting increased use of qualified project managers and requiring increased compliance with the existing project methodologies. Yet this is not where the problems are. The head of a project management association recently argued that the poor project performance statistics “cannot be right” as there are now more qualified project managers than ever. Sorry, but that’s not the problem or the solution.

The problems are not within project management

When we analysed where the value went on projects, only a few of the core problems were found to be related to the quality of project management; instead the core problems were found in the missing or deficient processes that surround projects and should drive projects. The processes that some project managers make a career out of avoiding.

  • Poor requirements identification
  • Poor change management
  • Poor benefits identification
  • Poor prioritisation
  • Poor project governance
  • Poor benefits realisation—and so on

Cumulatively, deficiencies in these areas routinely cause projects to miss, lose and destroy more than 50% of their available value.

Why is poor performance tolerated?

The primary reason why this level of poor performance is tolerated is quite simple—you can deliver an ‘on time, on budget, to specification’ project while ignoring all of these non-project management areas.

  • Deliver the specification you’ve been given, tick off the functions and features in a ‘requirements matrix’, and you’re done (never mind if it is not fit-for-purpose).
  • Deliver the project on time (by reducing the change management or quality testing workload to fit the timeframe).
  • Deliver the project to budget by compromising elements that destroy longer-term business value (that few will try to measure anyway).

All with the support of the business governance team that (incorrectly) see delivering ‘on time, on budget’ as their measures of success too.

Change the perspective

It is only when you take a business value perspective that these ignored processes become centrestage and critical to the successful delivery of the project AND its desired business outcomes, benefits and value.

The first step is to change your measures of success for project investments. Once it is agreed that the measures of success are the successful delivery of the desired business outcomes, benefits and value, then the focus has to shift to the processes that will deliver these business outcomes, benefits and value.

Without these additional processes you cannot succeed.

You can still spend money, allocate resources and deliver projects, but you cannot maximise, optimise and realise all of the available value from your projects. The process of project delivery without these overriding business processes leads directly to expensive compromised results and value.

Start by defining your measures of success (your Value Equation). Everything stems from clearly defining what you’re trying to achieve at the outset or, at least, from the business case stage onwards. This is great as it means that there is a simple starting point. You don’t have to ‘boil the ocean’ to improve results.

You can start by redefining the measures of success and then aligning all subsequent activities to delivering ‘success’. Then people will start saying, “But where’s the governance or benefits delivery processes to support us to deliver these measures of success?” Then you’re on the road to improving both project and business performance and maximising the value realised from each project investment.

It (project delivery) is broke; you do need to fix it.

It really is that simple.

This was first published as ‘If it’s broke, DON’T fix it!‘ and has been reproduced with permission.

Jed Simms
Jed Simms is the founder and co-creator of Totally Optimized Projects, an internationally recognised strategy-based, business-driven approach to delivering projects. He specialises in project governance and control and value and benefits management. He is also the founding partner of consultancy Capability Management.
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