Do 70% of Your Projects Fail (Part 3)

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

This post is part 3 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.

Part 2 was about identifying people experience as the possible root cause.

In this last part 3 post, we'll introduce ideas for a solution to reducing project failures.

remember Process, People, and Technology

In your work history, you may have heard or talked about the three pillars, process, people, and technology. Large consulting firms, such as Accenture, IBM, Deloitte and Ernst & Young have been consulting end clients with strategies around these three factors for decades.

You may recall in our last post we outlined the five failures pointed out by the Standish Group CHAOS survey results. This includes lack of executive support, missing emotional maturity, poor user involvement, no optimization, and not enough skilled staff. 

We then identified that people experience was really a problem in all of these five failure points. Today, let's walk through ideas on a solution using process, people, and technology as cornerstones.

Process Solution & People

There are two issues with missing the learning process. One, is that many organizations miss the "how-to" content needed from lessons learned. If you don't integrate your lessons learned into your process, then your people will continue to struggle solving the same issues. Second, is the lack of a framework library that allow project leads and managers to pick and choose the best process for their specific projects or programs. Dr. Harold Kerzner calls this "cafeteria-style" project management. So, a lack of continuous improvement (not leveraging lessons learned) and no guiding frameworks to start from immediately inhibit a managers’ ability to jump start successful projects from the beginning. So managers need to think about the future projects when working on today’s projects.

  1. Capture lessons learned while your projects are in progress.
  2. Turn those lessons learned into project process change as soon as you can.
  3. Build and document multiple light versions of your project execution processes for different project types. These become your project frameworks.
  4. Make your frameworks readily available to all project leads and managers to easily choose from.

A process solution is a people solution, since your processes will not execute themselves unless we're talking about automated workflow systems like ERP processing. We're not. We're talking about manual processes where your knowledge workers make the process happen.

People Solution & Engagement

In Part 2, we introduce a cultural challenge reflected in the lack of sharing good people experience. To ensure the process solution gets well implemented, you need a culture that proactively engages people. Many would say you need to hire the right person with the right experience, but that may not always work. Or you may just have to "play the hand you're dealt", and make the best of the people you have. 

Here are some key steps to get started on a proactive culture:

  1. Encourage people to ask for help when they feel they may need it, or might want a second eye or opinion. 
  2. Reward those who help others when they see someone who needs help. 
  3. Get everyone to express new ideas, no matter how simple or silly they may seem.
  4. Recognize and celebrate those who take the initiative to be more engaged with asking, helping, and innovating. 

Technology Solution

There are three foundational problems with traditional tools used for project execution. One, they are not processed based. They are in fact list-based by design, and follow the same pattern popularized by Microsoft Project.

Secondly, leveraging the more advanced features requires advanced technical skills and exponential amounts of data thus making these tools very expensive and complex. The chase to the top is to get on Gartner's Magic Quadrant, which mainly rewards heavy feature sets rather than simplicity of execution by all team members.

Third, since these tools focus on lists rather than process views, they are not made for real-time process improvement. They are not designed for a-la-cart framework libraries that can be actively updated from lessons learned in real time. These failure points are critical if you are trying to advance the level of people experience.

Metrics are good, but traditional tools are not designed to change processes based on metric feedback. Feedback loops from lesson’s learned get trapped with the experienced person and are hard to store and share in most tools. Look for tools designed for driving consistency, efficiency, and repeatability while sharing content that flexes in real time.

Here are some ideas on what kinds of technology enablers to look for:

  1. Process based by design, not task list based. This is the only way to help junior managers get up to speed very quickly. A process tool should visually take you through your framework's phases. It should allow your team member to quickly access the how-to knowledge for a particular task, making every step a learning experience. Also, look for a tool that helps you build process frameworks and provides an easy way for project managers and leads to pick and choose their preferred framework from the process library as they kick off a new project.
  2. Stupid easy, or very easy to use after a short (1-2 hours) training session. People are busy learning how to do their work better. Don't let the tool get in the way! If the tool is on top of Gartner's list, but difficult to use, it will end up on top of your back office closet shelf. Also look for tools that do a good job showing those robust features only when you need it, rather than cluttering up the window. Modern tools should also have an ample set of self-guides, such as context sensitive short tutorial videos and mouse tool tips. Access to support staff in real time coupled with embedded social collaboration for team engagement and support is also important.
  3. The tool should work well with your process improvement culture. It should allow you team members to comment on how to improve the project process as they use the tool. It should make it easy for your process owners to update the content and then to publish that change out to the projects in real time. If the tool makes it easy to share project process improvement content, then you will be on your way to helping less experienced project leads become your new stars.


In summary, projects are still failing by 70% or higher and this trend is slowly getting worse because of more complex projects, people working remotely, and experience managers being promoted and moving on. We found that this high failure rate continues because we don't have enough people with practical experience, who have capacity to solve problems, and are willing to share, help, develop the ideas needed to solve project challenges.

You can still make a difference and increase your success rate. We have found that a shift in project management style from task list micro-management to process management & improvement increases project success rate by over 30%, continuously. Over a few years, we have helped companies drive up their success rates, reduce wasted investment and improve employee performance while making it easier to deliver all aspects of project and program management. Our customer outcomes surprised us in two ways: 1) the simplicity in which they were achieved, 2) the improvement results in project outcomes.

We realize there are investments required to make change happen. However, consider our opening concern in part 1 of this blog. The amount of estimated cost resulting from a 29% project success rate could be in the Trillions of dollars. We believe that you cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking used to create it.  So, shifting from a traditional approach to an approach proven in manufacturing to be transformative does not seem so large a leap and given our customer results, is proving to be worthwhile.


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 Sebastian Molina

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