Project managers plan for failure rather than success

The above words came from a British Computer Society report recently published by Dr John McManus and Dr Trevor Wood-Harper. It comes hot on the heals of the Gartner Report which I mentioned in a blog last week.

The report examines 214 projects covering 1998 – 2005 with just over 40% of the project value being €10m-20m. The research highlights that only one in eight information management projects can be considered truly successful (failure being described as those projects that do not meet the original time, cost and quality requirements criteria).

Of the original 214 projects 51 were cancelled (23.8%). The authors cited a range of reasons for this which included:

• business strategy superseded
• poor requirements management
• business benefits not clearly communicated or overstated
• Governance issues within the contract

The report goes into more detail than I can here but it highlights yet again the problem of project failure. Is well worth a read.

This is the 2nd successive week I have written about a lack of success in the project management world. So, is project management getting better? To me, these statistics show that project management does not seem to be getting any better. However, what is your perspective on this? I had some interesting comments on Linkedin ( and at the end of my blog Project Management Is it Getting Worse? comments. I’d be really interested in your views.

You can read the report published by British Computer Society here 

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11 Responses to Project managers plan for failure rather than success

  1. David Green says:

    I wonder about the definitions used in the report. For instance, “failure being described as those projects that do not meet the original time, cost and quality requirements criteria” is too restrictive a definition, in my view. Projects are an intervention in the play of time and should change as they uncover more issues to consider. The investment position of a project and the options that it continually confronts are in flux, and so change is probably inevitable. The original paramaters may have been wrong, they may have been subject to legitimate change, the constraints may have been artificial, that is, not related to a ‘value’ outcome in investment terms (the only terms, in my view), the definition may have been changed by simply doing the project.

  2. David Green says:

    Further to my previous comments, project cancelation seems to be regarded as a ‘bad thing’ in the report, when for a business, it might be a smart move to cancel a project that will not maximise benefits to the busines compared to other investments. Sometimes this can only be assessed by starting a project, more or less as an active research enquiry. Project failure then would include those projects being completed on time, etc. but that did not maximise comparative benefits to the business.

  3. Ron,
    Interesting concept. Here in Aerospace and Defense our programs are built on the Integrated Master Plan / Integrated Master Schdule (IMP/IMS). This paradigm defines the increasing maturity for the product or service as the program moves from left to right.

    Each Program Event is assessment of the maturity of the work to date – preliminary design review for example – would asses the “preliminary” estimates of mass for a spacecraft. This is not the final mass, since more design work is needed.

    Similar processes could be applied to software. Preliminary, Final, Operational, In production assessments increase in their maturity as the project moves from left to right.

    This approach “plans for success” by defining what done looks like at each assessment point. Programmatic and Technical risk retirement or mitigation must be embededed in the Plan.

    The Plan is actually the strategy for the successful completion of the program. The Schedule is the work activities needed to deliver the Plan.

    My experience on the commerical side of our firm is that IT project rarely have a Plan and the Schedule is almost never risk adjusted in the way a defense Plan and Schedule are.

    Here’s overview of the IMP/IMS guidance
    and a handbook for applying this paradigm

  4. Brad Egeland says:

    I certainly agree that the overall rate of true project success is very low when all original goals and measures are considered. Of the projects I’ve managed and other projects in the organizations I’ve worked in, few ever truly meet the original requirements, timeline and budget goals that they started with.

    However, if the overall solution meets the customer’s requirements and business process needs, and if the customer remains happy and referenceable, then I feel strongly that the project is generally to be considered successful.

    Also, other reasons that I would site for projects being cancelled – especially in midstream:

    – Customer dissatisfaction
    – Budget overrun
    – Customer business needs changing
    – Personnel changes on the project that were not foreseen

  5. Sarah Welch says:

    I’m an IT project manager and fully believe that some cancelled projects are more successful than some that proceed! I think that information management projects suffer in the measures mentioned because project management tends to start earlier in these projects. The variety of stakeholders involved tend to require a point person that can talk to business and IT folks and act as a translator. Business users think that IT can do just about anything but don’t tend to understand the time and costs required. So, the project starts, requirements are gathered, better cost estimates prepared, and the costs don’t justify the benefits. Alternatively, the project can’t be completed in the way that the customer imagined. This is another reason for not meeting the original goals, even if the project proceeds.

  6. Lee Fischman says:

    I’ve decided a grass roots effort might be interesting counterpoint to the Standish report. I created a single-question survey here:

    And will be posting results here:

  7. Jim Conneely says:

    Interesting question Ron. I’ve spent many years in the commercial IT world managing project and programme delivery teams. My initial thoughts would be that measure of failure and definition could be significantly different within different business / industry sectors. I would also have to add that a project manager planning for failure or success is often heavily influenced by many internal and external factors within an organisation e.g. if the project sponsor is in name only and the P.M. is aware of this he would likely have serious reservations about ‘the success factor’. I’ve seen projects undertaken which quite obviously don’t have the right level of resource or focus but unfortunately it’s a case of ‘just get on with it’ from the powers that be who don’t have a clue about the dynamics required to set a project up for success.

    A company that I used to work for would undertake projects just because they sounded like a good idea i.e. no sign of a business case or if there was it had serious flaws all over it. Thankfully I got the opportunity to do something about and ensure that projects were justified and the business case really stood up to the relevant level of review. I’d be interested to understand how many businesses undertake a structured investment analysis / review, doesn’t have to be rocket science and in fact it really shouldn’t be, but will ensure that they’re heading down the right path.

    Best Regards,

  8. Pingback: Standish Chaos Report 2009: Are projects failing or are Project Managers failing? « The Productivity Habit

  9. “63 Project Management Tips”

    That is the title of what I saw from a google search on “project planning and management”. how resourceful it is!

    I am sure it will stand me in good stead everywhere I go and in everything that I do.

    keep it up and may God bless you all.

  10. Ron says:

    Thanks you all for the contributions to this important debate. Some further stats have just been published by Project Manager Today which I am studying. There are some good points here and I am for one more enlightened about success or failure.

    David, no problem here with cancelled projects. I wish more were cancelled as they seem to contribute little to the companies overall strategy. They appear to be nice to have.

    Glen, many thanks for the references. These look very useful.

    Brad, you mention the customer; so often not considered? I feel they must be one of the arbiters on satisfaction.

    Sarah, I do find that discovering client needs is not done as well as it could be. Getting the customer to identify what they want is a huge issue (people on training programmes tell me this) and often the IT person cannot interpret the business requirements…I have heard IT people curse about this aspect of their job. Plus, managing changes is not done or not done very well according to evidence I have seen.

    Jim, yes there are still some companies around who do work which don’t give the required resources to projects and the words you use..just get on with it …happens. I often ask the clients I work with whether these are strategic must be done projects. I do not get a really positive yes!

    Mwangi, many thanks!!

    Let’s all keep on contributing to overall project success and thanks for writing.Let’s keep up the debate

    Ron Rosenhead

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