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Forget the silver bullets

In Why Projects Fail, I berate the fact that there is a constant stream of surveys asking for the top reasons why projects fail. In fact one I saw only last week asked for the “top one cause/reason for project failure?”

These surveys may just pass you by, but they do tend to get higher levels of interaction on social media than almost any other type of discussion. “Just let it go!” I hear you say. “It doesn’t do any harm and at least it gets people discussing what can go wrong.”

Well I think it does do harm. As I previously pointed out, these surveys come up with the same old reasons time and time again and they have an insidious effect.

If there is a small and finite number of reasons why projects fail, then there should be a small and finite number of solutions that will make projects succeed. It is this mentality that leads to the ‘silver bullet’ approach.

In the four decades that I have been managing or consulting there have been numerous silver bullets that will solve ‘all our project management problems’. In the 80’s it was project management software (which was, of course just planning software*); in the early 90’s it was methodologies; in the late 90’s it was qualifications – and so on. Clearly, these silver bullets have had no effect on the looming beast of project failure.

There is another phrase that is more relevant to what we need to do – silver buckshot.

When reviewing post project reviews from many different sources I am struck by the fact that reasons for project failure are often very mundane. Phrases like, “we should have communicated with our stakeholders more effectively” or “we should have been much clearer about the objectives” are by no means uncommon.

Conversely, when you read the post project reviews (PPRs) of successful projects, they can often be paraphrased as saying nothing more inspiring than “we did the basic things well – and they worked” (this is particularly noticeable in some of the London 2012 PPRs).

Project failure needs to be addressed on a very broad front. No sniper’s bullet is going to solve the cultural issues that cause projects to fail. What we need is buckshot – and lots of it. Project success will be achieved through a multitude of individually unimpressive small shots rather than a single bullet aimed at “the top one cause of project failure”.

 

* I fondly remember a magazine advert for SuperProject, which was a top selling package before MS Project came along. It showed the SuperProject box (software came in boxes in those days) on a black leather chair. The strapline was “the best project manager you’ll ever meet”. Really?!!

 

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Forget the silver bullets

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