Why bad projects are so hard to kill


The project is going well. The prototype has been approved and will be ready in 2 weeks. The budget looks a little strained, which  will soon be sorted once approval for development is given and then the cash will start to flow.

Or so they thought.

But then the regulations changed. This meant that the prototype was not up to the standard required. It needed re-engineering and further testing. Additional budget -the Company Board approved the extra expenditure. Based on the strong case given by the project manager and predicted cash flow, and, even more important, profit. (the project manager was the person who initially thought about the idea and was well supported by 2 technical Directors) .

The second prototype is now ready (2 months behind schedule and 20% above the additional budget expenditure). Testing shows that while it reaches the new standard under extreme temperatures, it does not.

Extra budget is granted and the new timetable shows that this will be delivered in another 3 months. The project manager is still confident that the project will be successful. But no one asks what this means!

Sound familiar? Hopefully not.

Now this is a story I made up. It does not have any truth to it. So why write it? I wrote it because it reflects some of the projects that I have come across over the years where ‘someone comes up with a great idea!’ Money and resources are pumped into this ‘great idea’. But when really examined, no one has tested out whether the idea ‘will work’ or whether there is a fit with the overall company strategy.

Cut now to an article I started to read from the Harvard Business Review article by Isabelle Royer; Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill.  In it she gives 2 case studies of projects that should have been killed much earlier.

She asks a question: Why can’t companies kill projects that are clearly doomed?” She goes officeonto say…..” the failures I’ve examined resulted, ironically, from a fervent and widespread belief among managers in the inevitability of their projects’ ultimate success. This sentiment typically originates, naturally enough, with a project’s champion; it then spreads throughout the organization, often to the highest levels, reinforcing itself each step of the way. The result is what I call collective belief, and it can lead an otherwise rational organization into some very irrational behavior.”

She suggests “…there is a ‘seductive appeal’ of collective belief and also goes on to say: “When it reinforces others’ perceptions and desires, collective belief is often contagious and can easily spread among the various decision makers who control a project’s fate.”

I made up the story because I needed something to illustrate the issues. I have seen, and maybe you have as well, collective belief take over. There are those projects that should have been stopped a lot earlier, however for some reason they have not; collective belief explains it!

Now let’s look at the impact on the overall portfolio of projects that suffer from collective belief:

  1. Valuable resources are tied up on a projects that is not going to deliver
  2. Project governance – many projects are risky. How effective was the initial risk assessment? Surely the overall governance processes should have kicked in and stopped the project?
  3. Budget – the money for collective belief projects can be used on more effective projects
  4. Management time – we are all busy people but how many of us are busy on projects that should have been stopped a while ago? The impact of this range from motivation issues to stress, from a lack of belief in the project, to the fear of speaking out against the project.
  5. Benefits management – are real benefits being identified and used to measure the progress of projects
  6. The great idea maybe just that but where does it fit in the priority list? Should it be included in the overall project portfolio and if yes, does something else drop off? A decision on this should be made to prevent the company taking on too many projects

I write this to illustrate what I have seen over the years. Ideas need to be tested and even if there is a collective belief that it will benefit the company decisions need to be made; decisions which senior executives seem to duck because they do not use existing project management processes or are not aware of the of the situation they are in.

Why not let us know about your experience with collective belief? I am sure we would all like to hear from you.


Photograph courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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3 Responses to Why bad projects are so hard to kill

  1. Tom Hussey says:

    Yes, collective belief is so powerful … I once tried to talking about closing down failing projects fast and in fact that this shouldn’t be seen as failure more rapidly learning. I described it as killing puppies before they became large messy dogs and people were not very happy 🙂

    • Ron Rosenhead says:

      Killing puppies…a good comparison with killing a project. The emotional ties attached to that ‘great idea’ are so strong that people somehow convince others…I wonder why this cannot be done when something logical, well thought out and researched is suggested? I think we both know the answer to that one.Many thanks Tom

  2. Glen ALLEMAN says:

    Nice post Ron,
    Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box is a good book we’ve used to expose this problem

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