Failed Project Pilot? Chalk It Up as a Win!
By Donald Patti
You’ve just had a failed pilot, followed by a quick meeting with the Project Management Office (PMO). Your project was killed and you feel like a failure.
What should you do next? “Celebrate,” I say, “then chalk it up as a win.”
What? Not the answer you were expecting? Let me explain…
I spend quite a bit of time in a classroom, whether it’s to teach a subject or to learn myself. During one class, the oft-cited Standish Group statistic that measures projects successes reared its ugly head once again, this time citing a roughly 30% project success rate with roughly 45% qualifying as challenged (Standish Group 2009). Per Standish, roughly 70% of projects fail to meet expectations – a sobering statistic.
A project manager sitting behind me who specialized in pharmaceuticals shocked me when she said, “Gee, I wish our numbers were that good [in our industry]. The odds of a clinical trial resulting in the drug reaching market is 1 in 20, and this is after its cleared a number of internal hurdles to justify a stage I/II trial.” (A stage I/II trial is early in the process and serves as a pilot). While I laughed at her comment, I also considered how it related to the Standish statistics and definitions of project success.
By her definition, success meant bringing her product all the way to market, an unlikely outcome by her own estimation and by those of my fellow health sciences colleagues. But, what if success was defined as, “Accurately determining whether a product should be brought to market,” or “Successfully determining whether a project should continue past the pilot stage”? Suddenly, many of her projects would be considered successes. After all, how many drugs don’t work, have ugly side effects, or have the potential to kill their patients? Isn’t she and her team successful if they keep bad drugs off the market and aren’t we better off for it?
In the software industry, good software methodologies use pilots, proof-of-concepts or prototypes to determine whether a software product is worth fully developing and fully budgeting. In the Rational Unified Process, the rough equivalent of a pilot is called the Lifecycle Architecture Milestone and its purpose is to confirm that the greatest technical and design hurdles can be overcome before additional funding is provided to the project. In Rapid Application Development prototyping is embedded in each and every iteration (cycle), while paper prototyping is a part of Agile development. Regardless of the methodology, these steps are designed to provide results early, but they are also designed to confirm that a project is worth completing, providing an opportunity to change course or shut down the effort when it’s not.
So, maybe it’s time for those of us in the PMO and portfolio management to change they way we measure project success. Right along side the “projects successfully completed on time/on budget” statistic, there should be two others — “projects successfully killed because their pilots proved they simple weren’t viable,” and “dollars saved by ending unfeasible projects early.” Because in the end, a pilot’s failure is just as good as a pilot’s success, as long as you listen to its message.
Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.