Why Projects Fail

BLUF: Keith Baba (now retired) created a slide show for me when I was OPS at Pearl Harbor about why projects fail. The research he did was based on failure of IT projects, but every overhaul project I have seen go significantly over time and budget has suffered from the same types of problems. I often think that we should train Engineering Duty Officers more on this topic so they clearly understand what it takes for projects to be successful, which is not always as clear as it might be given their short tenure at shipyards. The biggest reasons for failure are: not having enough resources, poor understanding of potential (usually known at the start) or actual (discovered during the project) new work, trying to do too much in the time available (it has to be done, but customers do not want to change the schedule or prefer to set "challenge" goals), too many inexperienced project team members, an incomplete/poor project plan, failure to update/use schedule analysis tools, poor interpersonal skills of key project team members, poor skills of the crew (unique to ship overhaul) and poor support of the project team by upper management.

Top 5 Reasons Why Projects Fail (based on an interview with Ted Leeman, Mgt Executive Director of Management Concepts)

1. The project is not part of the “business plan” and therefore not in alignment with business plan

2. Risk assessment is underestimated because projects are “eternally optimistic”

3. Scope creep (new work); incremental add on’s to the project

4. The ripple effect on scope creep and risk assessment:

Too often we use a SWAG as benchmark and do not define the real impact of new work

5. We see something going wrong; but we take no action to clarify the problem. Instead, we throw more resources (see the Myth of the Man Month) at it and more resources are often not the solution to the problem since ship overhaul is so complex.

Cold Case File: Why Projects Fail (May 6, 2003, by Paul Chin)

  1. Setting an overly ambitious project scope
  2.  The lack of project methodology (road map from conception to completion)
  3.  Poor user input and requirements gathering
  4.  The lack of support from senior management
  5. Poor interpersonal skills (lack of communication, poor teamwork, internal politics)

Setting an overly ambitious project scope

It's essential to understand that there's a compromise between what you want to accomplish and what you're actually able to accomplish. An overly ambitious project -- when goals exceed your ability to deliver timely results -- was the silver bullet that undid our victims.

The project originators came to the realization, halfway into development, that they overshot their ability to deliver what was promised. After that, their once analytic mindsets quickly dissolved into survival mode.

The lack of project methodology

Methodology varies greatly from project to project, taking into account environmental factors and project specifics. And, of course, methodology is relative to the size of the project. The bigger the project, the more important it is to have this road map. But regardless of size, every project methodology must address three core issues: planning, development, and implementation.

Poor user input and requirements gathering

Nothing kills projects faster than taking on new work without facing the facts and presenting them to customers about the impact of the new work on key events. Requirements need to be worked out on both sides because there's a symbiotic relationship between operators (who operate the systems and understand the operational impacts of alternative repairs) and maintainers (who know what the technical requirements are and have to present options with associated risks when new work is likely to impact the schedule).

The lack of support from senior management

  • Without the backing of senior management to lend credibility to these projects, our originators had a difficult time recruiting employees to participate in development and testing.
  • Why? Because teams are usually made up of people from different departments who all have their own set of priorities. And, of course, they all have their own bosses. It would be tough to justify participating in an unsanctioned project with the twenty other tasks already on their plates -- no mandate, no effort.

Poor interpersonal skills

Projects are manned by people and people are subject the most unfortunate and entirely preventable (maybe, some leopards cannot change their spots) causes of project failure -- forgetting about the human factor. The three most notorious suspects:

  1. Lack of communication
  2. Poor teamwork
  3. Internal politics

A project will only be as good as the people and effort placed behind it. Teams that lack the ability to work as a cohesive unit find themselves in constant disagreement. The arguments and infighting can cause people to move in opposite directions, can result in lower morale, and spawn "us versus them" attitudes.

The link below is an article by Michael Greer (available at his website and in pdf)

Ten Guaranteed Ways to Screw Up Any Project

The author’s observations fall into nearly the same five categories above, while adding distracting the project team and failing to prioritize projects.

Vulnerabilities of Shipyards

  • Lack of effective strategic planning as evidenced by availabilities being rescheduled and re-resourced immediately prior to, or immediately after availability start.   
  • Lack of a disciplined approach and tools to use to ensure project management team assignments were made in sufficient time to meet project-planning requirements.  
  • Shipyard processes not aligned to support mechanics and supervisors efficient execution of work and a continued focus on the reduction of high cost work items.   
  • Inadequate number of production personnel (supervisors and mechanics) resources.   
  • Poor cost and schedule performance and poor supervisory oversight and performance.
  • Management not driving effective corrective actions.
  • Weak leadership in solving problems, living with cumbersome processes and perpetual short-term corrective actions.

Top Four Reasons Why Shipyard Projects Succeed (provided by Keith Baba)

      Planning – Shipyard commits time and people to plan

      Alignment – Shipyard aligns all the stakeholders to the project’s goals, including the ship – stake holders have realistic expectations

      Resources –Shipyard assigns the best people and protects them from outside interruptions

      Rapid Pace –Project does every task fast and now.


For Further Reading:

Overcoming Bias: Planning Fallacy  

Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and Consequences of Optimistic Time Predictions, Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross

Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish

What Junior EDs should be learning in their industrial tours (or "What is success for an ED's first industrial tour?")

Knowledge Management (KM) Among Engineers