Sunday, 15 November 2009 00:00

Project Failure Bunk

Rate this item
(0 votes)

Are project success rates getting better or worse? What is the cost? What are the controlling factors? How does someone calculate these numbers? The answers are elusive. Lately, Roger Sessions has taken exception to one source—The Standish Group. He has many valid points. However, I doubt there are any statistics giving us a complete picture.

This twitter banter prompted me to dust off some old reports, dig through my library and search my online files to pull some meaningful data together. I was wondering about the headline sentence of this year's Standish Chaos Report, which contains "[2008's] results show a decrease in project success rates, with 32% of all projects succeeding." A pretty alarming statement.

What Does the Standish Data Show?

Graph of Standish numbers since 1994
Figure 1 - Standish Project Success Data

As it turned out, I needed only two sources of data from Standish—The 2009 Chaos Report and the book My Life is Failure. I plotted the combined data of Cancelled, Challenged and Successful project to get a picture of the changes since the famed report was first published in 1994. Figure 1 shows a graph of this data.

There is some very good news here. The Success line is trending up quite nicely. It has had a few setbacks, but it is improving. It starts at about 20% Success in 1994 going to the mid-thirties in 2008. In fact, it looks relatively linear (flattening a little in the last few years).

Graph to compare Cancelled to Challenged
Figure 2 - Comparison of Cancelled
and Challenged Projects

The bad sign is on Cancelled projects. They appear to be trending up over the last three years. However, a closer look shows the Challenged curve seems to be a mirror image of Cancelled curve. Plotting the Challenged to Not Cancelled (100%-Cancelled) percentages (Figure 2) confirms the strong correlation hinted in the previous graph.

Is this simply that people are realizing that they should stop throwing good money at bad projects and cancelling them sooner? Is the improvement in success rates because companies are running more smaller, less complex projects? Both would show good fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately, Standish does not publish that data, at least in the material I have. With this, we are back to Mr. Sessions' complaint with the Standish Group's data. In addition, the headline above, that the numbers are getting worse, does not reflect the whole picture. The trend appears to be an overall improvement in handling projects. Standish has trouble saying that since they live off of failure.

The question remains, "Are Standish's numbers valid?" But, does it matter? As long as they are consistent in the way they collect data, trends should be valid. Changing the method may move an entire line up or down, but it is unlikely to change the trends.

Graph of PMI membership numbers
Figure 3 - PMI's Membership
Count Since 1964

Where is the Improvement Coming From?

Curiosity abounds. What is causing the increased project Success? I looked in the obvious place for comments on project improvement—the Project Management Institute (PMI). There is a variety of data to choose from on their website; I chose what could be easily referenced—the 2008 Annual Report. This report indicates the ranks of PMI have grown from 10,000 members in 1994 to 287,438 at the end of 2008. As they point out in their report "That's literally exponential growth." This is evident from Figure 3 (2008 Annual Report, page 5). One might expect this explosion in the number of professionals to spur an equal improvement in the project success numbers. If this were a factor, the improvement surely would look nonlinear. However, this exponential growth in the PMI numbers seems to have had little effect on the linear improvement in project success.

I guess I am going to have to continue to dig to see why there is an improvement in the success rate. Keep checking back.

Read 10601 times

Related items

  • Process Mapping

    Process is at the core of any business. It makes work predictable, repeatable, and transferable. Without it we cannot scale our businesses. However, process can be a bane to making progress. Processes that work for a $10 million company have difficulties supporting a $30 million company. Trying to scale them to a $300 million company will not only fail but not address the issues that larger companies have that were never dreamt of in a smaller organization. Processes need to be discarded, revamped, and built—all of that without creating an overburdening bureaucracy.

    Anytime you need to go someplace, you first have to know where you are. Processes are never static and your company's current state is probably far from where you think it is. Hence, the first step is mapping out you company's current state followed by defining the future state. This is more than a logical map of the process; it must also include physical maps. Whether your process is solely to provide a service (say, website development) or physical (say, manufacturing) there are logistical issues that complicate the process flow. Without fully understanding those nuances, future state processes will not reach the desired efficiencies.

    For more information about process mapping fill out the form to the left and we will get in touch with you.

  • Success vs Culture

    The other day a Latvian student contacted me for my views the connection between culture and success criteria—an important and intriguing topic. After working in Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Israel, United States, and Canada, I wear many scars of both blatant and subtle cultural violations. I also know that within a culture one person's success is often another person's failure. So, after dispelling concerns about clicking on some random email link, I completed her survey (please feel free to take it yourself). In the process, I struck up a friendship with the student, Kristine Briežkalne, who is studying at Riga International School of Economics and Business Administration . She has some interesting views and presented me with a Venn diagram showing four frames to a project (business, client, project management, and growth perspectives) and how they intersected. As the diagram is part of her Master's thesis, I will let you ponder the how to label the overlapping areas (an eye-opening exercise).

  • Kill The White Knight

    There is a reason we do not teach classes on fixing failing projects. Many a cynic feels that we simply do not want to teach our trade, however, our reason is far nobler—we should be teaching prevention rather trying to create white knights to save the day. It is the same philosophy as building a fence at the cliff's edge rather than an emergency room at its base. Our language is replete with idioms telling us to look past the symptom and address problems at their root cause. 'An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure' or 'a stitch in time saves nine.' Please, feel free to supply your own in the comments. Unfortunately, most of our businesses loathe this philosophy, waiting to address an issue until it is irrefutably broken.

  • Comparing Organizational Change Management Models

    A few weeks ago, I set out to write a post on the comparison of various organizational change management (OCM) methodologies and realized that would be a disservice to my readers. It would simply drag you down the path of implementation while failing to focus you on building the foundation. The pressure was too much and I have relented to numerous requests on making that comparison. The caveat is that juxtaposing these models is not comparing different varieties of oranges or even apples and oranges; we are surely comparing the peel to the fruit they contain. Hence, comparing methodologies like Kotter's model (the peel), Prosci's ADKAR (the core), and General Electric's Change Acceleration Process (the whole fruit) need a different approach.

  • The Executive-Project Manager Gap

    It was such an innocuous question, "Working on an article; what is the biggest problem you see with project governance at orgs? Can you comment?" Can I comment? Really? That is like cheese to a mouse. Where could I start—bureaucracy, draconian process, poor executive sponsorship, disengaged leaders? Plenty of fodder, because they all lead to project failure. I fired off, "Creating an over bureaucratic morass stifling innovation & implementing process instead of cultivating leaders." Then the maelstrom started and it went directly to the gap between the executives and projects managers. Naomi Caietti, Robert Kelly and I had a great conversation. Most of the thread is below.

Leave a comment

More Info on Project Recovery

Tell me More!

Please send me more information
on fixing a failing project.

Rescue The Problem Project

Internationally acclaimed

Image of RPP

For a signed and personalized copy in the US visit the our eCommerce website.

Amazon logo
Buy it in the United States Buy it in Canada Buy it in the United Kingdom
Buy it in Ireland Buy it in Germany Buy it in France
Buy it in Italy Buy it in the PRC
Buy it in Japan
Book sellers worldwide.

Upcoming Events

Other's References

Sitemap