Friday, September 4, 2009

History is about . . .

. . . remembering the past, but it is also about choosing to forget. Pick up any book on project management and you will read stories of project failures. Some of the stories focus on managerial issues and problems. Some will focus on the technical aspects and failures. Finally, some will be a combination of both. The same stories, histories, and lists show, however, that the root causes of these failures are similar and often identical. So why don't we learn lessons on previous projects? Why do we fail to appreciate that the best path toward the future maybe through the past.

Principal causes of project and program failures will include the following:
  1. Inadequate planning in the broadest sense without contingency or risk mitigation.
  2. Underestimation of the scope of the work.
  3. Underestimation of the technical difficulties.
  4. Unexpected variations and design changes.
  5. Additional costs due to delay or the acceleration measures to recover delays or meet a fixed completion date.
  6. Unexpectedly high inflation.
  7. Unclear ownership.
  8. Failure to appreciate the organizational complexity of the project or program.
  9. Failure to appreciate the degree of novelty to those involved.
  10. Failure to allow for changing external regulatory or environmental requirements.
  11. Unsuitable contractual arrangements or strategies.
  12. Inappropriate allocation of risk and responsibility in the contractual arrangements.
  13. Failure to take the user's views into consideration.
  14. Use of inexperienced, incompetent or unsuitable resources and poor allocation of responsibilities.
  15. Discontinuities in project development.
  16. Systemic over-optimism.
  17. Lack of accountability for estimates, schedules, and management.

It is typically never just one of the above elements - it is a combination. The exception would be systemic optimism. If one looks at the list in terms of managerial versus technical, it is clear that the bulk of the issues are soft problems. They involve people and organizational risks.

Proper information exchange and education appear to be key. It is important to view the initial project planning process and function for projects and programs as an opportunity for learning and reinvention rather than as prediction or control. It is equally important to view the education opportunities with the correct attitude. The challenge of education and learning is not to prepare a person for success, but to prepare him or her for failure - where the focus is on lifetime learning and continuous improvement.

Typical constraints to project knowledge exchange and learning exercises include the following:

  1. We don't embark on a new task or project expecting to fail. We assume that other people's problems won't apply to us.
  2. We don't know what we don't know. People need to look for additional knowledge but don't realize that they lack it. We need to acknowledge that we could benefit from seeking assistance.
  3. We need time to seek out additional knowledge, but frequently the timescales for our projects mitigate against it.
  4. We need to believe that any effort will be rewarded - the confusion of effort versus results.
  5. We need to be incentivized to seek out additional knowledge.
  6. If we find information, we must be able to put it to a context that is relevant to us.
  7. We might be embarrassed by our new found knowledge. What if it contradicts our previous experience and actions?
  8. We need to have the power to utilize our new found knowledge.
  9. We need to think we have the power to make a difference.

The lost art of writing also comes into play. Projects are stories. They have a beginning and an ending, and in between lies their story. Project stories can be told and lessons can be learned - with the understanding that the cheapest ink is better than memory.

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