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Why Project Managers Fail
By Jim Benson

I’ve managed a lot of projects. I tried to count them – I can’t. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve embraced a succession of methodologies that cumulatively represent a rather predictable evolution away from zero sum game management towards non-zero sum game management.

What does this mean?

As the science of project management evolves, we are clearly learning that managing based on guess work is a recipe for consistent failure. Traditionally, we managed projects based on the trusted opinion of a project manager who estimated the length, scope, cost, and resources required for a project. These project managers have a natural tendency to underestimate, and their guesses are vetted through a process designed to save money, rather than arrive at an accurate estimate.

While well-intentioned, agile methodologies have not appreciably changed this process. In the end, agile projects still obtain their backlogs in bulk and gather up-front estimates prone to error. For all of agile’s intentions, agile projects seldom break out of this pattern, even if they are well managed at the team level.

The top five reasons I see projects fail are (1) No slack in the system (2) Managing for the knowns (3) Not limiting work-in-progress (4) Political promises and (5) Sloppy communication. Let’s examine these:

1. No Slack

Every system requires slack in order to work correctly. Old reel-to-reel tape recorders needed an extra bit of tape fed into the mechanics to ensure that the tape wouldn’t rip. Roadways operate best at 65 to 70% capacity – they bog down over 80 and are at a dead stop at 100. In mills, grain is fed into the stones at about 70% capacity – anything over that gums up the works and makes the mill grind to a halt.

Why, then, is slack so foreign to project management? Because we negotiate it away every time. Why do we do this? Because we estimate at the individual task and not at the project level.

It’s like saying “Yes, my Porsche can go 185 miles an hour” and estimating a 90 mile drive at 30 minutes. Then we’re surprised when there are other cars on the freeway.

“Contingency” funds rarely work to abate this problem because contingency is not real. It is arbitrary and has no basis in reality. It is a lie. Without understanding our throughput, we cannot adequately estimate a project.

Successful project managers understand how long tasks usually take, what role variability plays, and what types of tasks slow their processes down.

2. Managing for Knowns

We manage for knowns. When we estimate, we use our history to ‘”know” when the project will be completed. We manage for people doing what we know they will and when they know we will.

That’s not a good idea.

Human systems are complicated. Yes, we can finish that task in 3 days provided no one gets sick, there isn’t a power outage, there isn’t a blizzard. Well, there are colds and blackouts and blizzards.

Successful project managers worry less about making sure their Gantt chart is religiously adhered to or if their two-week iteration goes unhindered and more about how to elegantly deal with the unexpected.

3. Not Limiting WIP

Again, people and teams have a capacity. If you exceed a certain percentage of that capacity, people become stressed, distracted, and increasingly ineffective. If a Freeway at 100% capacity is at a stand-still, its throughput is 0%. If your people are at 100% capacity, their throughput is likewise seriously impaired.

Limiting work-in-progress (WIP) is vital for maintaining throughput. Intentionally limiting WIP frees people to maximize their effectiveness by ensuring they work at an adequate percentage of their capacity. In turn, WIP is used to limit the number of features the organization can feed a team at a time. This helps the organization appreciate the true opportunity costs of new features. WIP limits communicate that employees are a limited resource and helps upper management understand the true cost of labor.

Successful project managers understand the capacity of the individuals working under them and can regulate the flow of work to optimize their throughput.

4. Political Promises

Politics are stressful and are often no-win situations. Project managers are often placed in political situations that force them to promise to produce more with less resources. (“Can’t you just add this one additional feature?”) Project managers cannot win these political situations because they don’t understand their true throughput. Project managers need to concretely show true productivity statistics to weather these confrontations.

Being able to say with firm evidence, “It takes us 21 days to release one new feature” diffuses political pressures and opens the door to real discussions.

Armed with a firm understanding of their operations, successful project managers can avoid over-promising due to ignorance.

5. Sloppy Communication

Teams run on information. In my experience, most delays and waste can be traced back to communications. Do people know why they are doing what they are doing? Does the team know what their co-workers are doing? Are recent developments rapidly disseminated so workers feel at-ease? Are the actions of the team being communicated up the management chain? Is the value of people’s actions understood by all? Are improvements to the development system being quickly discussed and acted upon? Is waste being spotted and dealt with?

Now that we have a multitude of tools to communicate with, poor communication simply can no longer be tolerated. The increasing commoditization of goods and services leaves profit margins too slim to tolerate that waste.

Successful project managers build social systems designed to rapidly disseminate information, keep team members informed, provide a pipeline to other areas of the enterprise, and improve operations.


Agile methodologies are great, I’ve been using them since 1997 when William Rowden and I first built our TreePro product. They went a long way to solving some of these tensions. Prior to that, as an urban planner, I managed multi-million dollar planning and engineering projects. As we move forward into the 21st century we need to understand that all knowledge work (which includes both software development and urban planning) requires a more adept type of project manager: a project manager that manages for the unknown because they understand the knowns very well – and those knowns include what were previously unknown: variability, waste, and politics.

Disclaimer: This is a blog post. It is short. Food for thought. Just think about it.

Jim Benson is a collaborative management consultant. He is CEO of Modus Cooperandi, a consultancy which combines Lean, Agile Management and Social Media principles to develop sustainable teams. You can follow Jim on twitter, or read more from him on his blog.

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