If most projects fail, why bother doing them at all?

Published on the 18/08/2015 | Written by Gary Nelson

There is still hope, explains international project management expert Gary Nelson…

It is a tragic statistic – according to the most recent KPMG Project Management Survey (July 2013), only 33 percent of projects in New Zealand in 2012 were delivered on budget, 29 percent were delivered on time, and 35 percent produced the stated deliverables.

With numbers like that, it is a wonder that any projects are started at all – we would be better off crawling into a cave and rolling a rock across the door.

Declaring a project a ‘failure’ is a difficult thing to face, especially when we put in the long hours, lost weekends and all of the blood, sweat and tears needed to bring our projects to completion.

But what is ‘failure’, really?

For the bean counters, it is easy to declare a project a failure within the rigid confines of ‘what was planned?’ versus ‘what was delivered?’, closely examining every measure. On time? On budget? Delivered to scope?

Any slight variation can cross your project over to the dark side. It hardly seems fair.

However, experience tells us it is never so simple. All projects are new endeavours, where the unexpected is the norm, and conditions can – and do – change. If you always knew the exact outcome, you would be on an assembly line.

On a project, all that can be done is to set eyes on the target and figure out the best way to get there – using appropriate methodologies, best practices, expert input and a highly skilled team.

Even your best estimates will never be perfect, but honest estimates always help.

When things change and impact the timeline, budget, or scope – a change request is used to handle the variation. That means things are all good, now, right? I’s dotted, T’s crossed, the executive has approved it, and the team can just get on with the project.

Except, of course, that the project is already deemed and labeled a ‘failure’ in the eyes of some. More money was spent, more time taken, or the deliverables changed.

But is that really fair?

Certainly, there are some projects that are real failures – over budget, behind schedule, and which don’t deliver what was promised. Worse, the project deliverables may never be used to their full potential because they were not fit-for-purpose. Or perhaps the project was abandoned and no benefits were realised.

Now, that is what real failure looks like.

Arguably, a more realistic (and frankly, less depressing) method for determining project success versus failure, is evaluating stakeholder happiness. No, I am not suggesting cracking jokes to lift boardroom mood. What I am talking about is satisfaction with the project outcome; that the deliverables fit the need, are appreciated and will be well-used, even if it took a little longer or cost a little more. In other words, it was worth it, and provided acceptable value relative to the investment.

The best way to help ensure a successful project is to have open communication and active engagement with all stakeholders throughout the project, from requirements to the final deliverables. With that engagement, there is boosted confidence that what is planned for delivery will meet the needs of stakeholders upon completion.

When stakeholders embrace project outcomes and use them to better their services, help their customers and get benefits they wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed, that is success.

They might even grin from ear to ear – and THAT is why we still do projects.


Gary Nelson is a Project Manager, father of three boys and author of four project management books. He has developed several methodologies and worked on numerous projects in the private and public sectors over the past 26 years. His international experience includes projects in New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US and Canada.

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