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Project Failure: Cobb’s Paradox
By Lynda Bourne

Cobb’s Paradox states, “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?”. PMI has recently published its latest Pulse of the Profession survey which shows some improvements on the 2008 and 2006 results but not much. Nearly half the projects surveyed in 2010 still failed to meet time and cost targets.

However, the PMI survey did highlight a stark difference between high performing organizations with a better than 80% success rate, and low performing organizations with a greater than 40% fail rate. And, the survey also clearly showed the processes typically used by the high performing organizations (and ignored by low performing organizations) are straightforward to implement and use; they include:

  • Using standardized project management processes.
  • Establishing a process to mature project, program and portfolio management practices.
  • Using a process to increase project management competency.
  • Employing qualified project managers.

Most of these elements coalesce around an effective project management office (PMO). Simply by standardizing project management processes, the survey shows an organization can expect a 25% increase in project success.

None of this new is new, KPMG demonstrated exactly the same point in its 2002 and 2003 surveys, supported by similar findings by PwC in 2004.

What’s worrying me is the large number of organizations whose middle and senior management are simply failing their stakeholders by not implementing these simple pragmatic steps. The question that should be asked is why?

The stakeholders whose rights are being ignored include the owners who have a right to expect efficient use of resources entrusted to the organization and the people employed on the failed projects whose work life is made unnecessarily stressful.

As Deeming pointed out in the 1950s, quality is a management responsibility. Therefore, allowing poor quality project management processes to exist in an organization is a management failure. To quote another mantra: quality is designed in not inspected in. Workers and project managers cannot be expected to retrofit quality into defective systems; systemic failures are a failure of management.

What makes the situation even more worrying is that the tools to develop a quality project management system are readily available. Models such as CMMI, P3M3 and PMI’s OPM3 maturity model has been around for years and are regularly updated.

PMI has recently moved to improve the availability and support for its OPM3 Self-Assessment Module (SAM). This basic assessment system is now sold and supported by organizations such as Mosaic that are qualified to deliver the full range of OPM3 services and help businesses achieve the best return on their investment. OGC have similar arrangements for P3M3 as does CMMI.

So, given the tools are available, the knowledge is available, and the value has been consistently demonstrated; why are organizations still prepared to squander $millions on failed projects rather than investing a fraction of that amount in simple systems that can significantly improve the value they deliver to their stakeholders?

I would be interested to know the answer.

Dr. Lynda Bourne DPM, PMP.

Lynda is the Managing Director of Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd. This business is focused on improving the capability of organizations to effectively manage their stakeholder relationships to the benefit of both the stakeholders and the organisation’s projects. She is also the Director of Training with Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd, where she is responsible for the development and delivery of OPM3, PMP, CAPM, Stakeholder Management and other project management training.

Lynda is a recognised international author, seminar leader and speaker. She is a SeminarsWorld® presenter and an accredited OPM3 ProductSuite Assessor and Consultant who has led a number of commercial OPM3 ProductSuite assessments.

She graduated from RMIT University Melbourne as the first professional Doctor of Project Management in 2005. Her research on defining and managing stakeholder relationships has lead to the development of the Stakeholder Circle® tool set and the SRMM® maturity model. Lynda blogs regularly on the Mosaic Projects blog.

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