Do 70% of Your Projects Fail (Part 2)

Written jointly by: Paul Dandurand, CEO of PieMatrix and Lawrence Dillon, Practice Leader of ENKI LLC.

This post is part 2 of a 3-part series on project failure rates. Part 1 was about the Standish Group CHAOS Report statistics that showed out of 50K projects only 29% succeeded. And only 6% of large capital projects succeeded. In this post, we'll cover the challenges and root causes.


An article in InfoQ explains the Standish Group CHAOS survey results. It shows that project failures comes from the following five (5) areas:

  • Lack of executive support. Financial and emotional backing is missing.
  • Missing emotional maturity. Behaviors of how people work together is weak.
  • Poor user involvement. Decision-making and information-gathering process is not there.
  • No optimization. Structured means of improving business effectiveness is not executed.
  • Not enough skilled staff. Highly proficient people are promoted or retire.

If we look at where most of the effort has been with project management training and enablement over the past 30 years, we can say it's around:

  • task management
  • metrics
  • resource allocation
  • and time and budget management

After reviewing the Standish Group’s findings we asked ourselves if these efforts have been the right ones. Are we missing something more fundamental? Are we skipping the real root cause and focusing only on the symptoms?  

The high failure rate tells us our traditional approaches are not working. We believe these are a few important reasons:

  • Checking off a task as 'done' doesn't mean it was done right.  
  • Knowing what happened doesn't provide insight on what to do to make the outcome better the next time. 
  • Knowing who's available and doing the work doesn't help us understand if they're doing the work right. 
  • Getting it done on time and on budget doesn't mean it created real business value.   

So our approach spun the research on its head and asked a different question. What is common for all the successful projects? What is the pattern of success? The Standish Group highlighted what they concluded, however, we boiled it down to a simple common thread for success ---- people experience.

What about people experience?

A highly experienced project manager...

  1. knows how to gain and maintain executive support,
  2. has a high level of emotional maturity,
  3. actively engages user involvement with sharing ideas, helping others, and asking for help,
  4. understands the importance of repeatable processes and frameworks,
  5. knows how to optimize the project and its future process with lessons learned,
  6. and maintains the structure given the dynamics of the company’s internal and external influences. 

We found that as good project managers tend to move on with job promotions or retirement, they're replaced with less experienced project leads. These new project leads tend to deal with trial-by-fire, figuring it out on their own. In addition, the problem is increased with cultures that push only deadlines or budgets, leaving little room for cooperation, idea sharing, and problem solving. Also, this issue is compounded by the fact that the number of complex projects are increasing and more people are working remotely.

ROOT CAUSES & People experience

Given our hypothesis that people experience leads to the project success or failure, we thought about the underlying reasons that might be the case of the 70% project fail rate.

Missing the Learning Process. The process of project execution is missing the “how-to” content. This lack of real-time information prevents the novice project manager from learning how to succeed from previous lessons learned. It also makes it harder with real-time team collaboration and cooperation since there's no foundation to build upon and discuss when working on important tasks. If the project execution process is limited to just task labels, the only thing to do is to check it 'done' or 'not'. There's no opportunity to learn about the right or better ways to get it done well. There's little chance for team idea sharing.

Inconsistency of Execution. We applaud PMI and others for their efforts in creating standard project management guidelines (i.e., PMBOK) and training, but we have witnessed that their approach is often a one-and-done view of the world. Business projects come in flavors. Whether a monolithic or a light agile approach, there's a lack of good execution consistency for each specific need. Each company has a different culture and they require different techniques. Also, each project type require different framework combinations that could never be covered by standard project management guidelines, such as PMBOK. These nuances are not baked into processes, ready to execute and re-execute as flexible frameworks made specifically for the organization. As a result, execution becomes inconsistent as many rely on the remake of a list of tasks without process in mind.

Lack of Continuous Improvement. If “how-to” process content and practices are not well documented, ongoing improvement is impossible. If the project process is not designed with a learning process in mind, and it's not established as frameworks for constancy, then what are we improving? How many times have we sat in a meeting after discussing lessons learned from serious issues and risks and then have no place to really document the improvements we need to make for the future? How will the future project leads and project managers get updated on the better ways to get the work done? How will they continue to learn?

Poor Scalability. Without a repeatable and improving library of frameworks, processes, and best practices, scaling is not possible. As your numbers of projects grow and as you add more junior project managers, it will be impossible to scale the knowledge that inexperienced people will need to succeed. 

No Smart Flexibility. Since project managers cannot access project execution process options for best-case needs, they miss opportunities to pick and choose the right framework or guideline to help with their immediate objectives. They are forced to stick with a top-down list of tasks that someone once threw into a folder and named it “Project Management Template”.


Jump to Part 3 of this 3-part blog series where we discuss our thoughts on a solution.


Lawrence Dillon is the Practice Leader of ENKI LLC, a boutique consulting firm specialized in helping executives execute strategic programs and projects to deliver business value. Previously, Lawrence was VP IT and Operations of RS Medical, CIO of Aramark Healthcare, and Chief Enterprise Architect of HCSC (Blue Cross Blue Shield of TX, IL, NM, OK, MO).

Paul Dandurand is the CEO and founder of PieMatrix. He has written a number of blogs related to project management tied to process improvement. Previously, Paul was co-founder of FocusFrame, Consulting Manager at Ernst & Young, and Technical Account Manager at Siebel Systems.


Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw

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