Why Projects Fail

Heaven and hell

A guy who lives his life without too many blemishes one day while walking down the street is hit by a bus and dies. As his soul arrives at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter himself greets him. “Welcome to Heaven. Before you settle in, we want to make sure you're committed to us. So we give you every chance to compare Heaven and Hell.”

“No problem,” he says. “Let's get to it.” “Well, we'd like to let you in,” says Peter. “But I have higher authority to respond to. Here's the plan, we're going to let you have a day in Hell and a day in Heaven so you can choose whichever one you want to spend an eternity.”

“I think I've made up my mind…I'd choose Heaven.” “Sorry, but rules are rules…” St. Peter then walks him to an elevator that takes him straight down to Hell. The doors open and he finds himself on the putting green of a beautiful golf course, a country club in the distance and all his old friends are right there, all dressed in tuxedos, cheering for him. They play a round of golf as they talk about old times. That night he enjoys a steak and lobster dinner at the country club in the company of his buddies.

As he's eating, the Devil comes over to offer him a Cuban cigar  he turns out to be a nice guy! His pals get a limo and take him to a Dance Club. Time flies when we have a good time, and before he realizes he has to leave. Everybody shakes his hand and waves goodbye as he get back on the elevator that takes him up to the Pearly Gates where St. Peter is waiting for him. “Now you get to spend a day in heaven,” he says.

He spends the next 24 hours lounging on clouds, playing the harp and singing he has a great time. When his time is up, St. Peter comes to get him. “You' spent a day in hell and a day in heaven. Now you must choose for eternity.”

After a pause, the guy says, “Well, I never thought I'd say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in Hell.” St. Peter escorts him to the elevator back to Hell.

But when the doors of the elevator open he finds himself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. He sees his friends in rags and picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. Flames and horrible gases pour out of the ground.

The Devil comes up to him, puts his arm around his shoulders… the guy says, “I don't understand, I was here yesterday, there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster, we danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland of garbage and everyone looks miserable.”

The Devil looks at him and smiles, “That's because yesterday you were a Prospect, we were interested in selling you on us. Today, you're a client.”

Wayne used to start his sales meetings with a version of this joke to help us focus on what matters. In the words of Jeffrey Gitomer, “Your job as a master salesman is to create an atmosphere where people want to buy.” But, and this was Wayne's message, we want to be make sure that when we promise something, we follow through and deliver on it.

The moral of the story  the devil is in the details. Meaning something may seem simple, but in fact the details are complicated and likely to cause problems#. Research suggests that at least one third of technology consulting projects don't meet the forecast profitability with nearly two thirds of firms lacking the transparency to measure benchmarks effectively. This is how so many technology projects fail to hit the mark.

But before technology became such a big part of our work, human nature was already driving complexity and it will continue to do so. Any project big or small has the potential to go astray.

Why projects fail

In the same way as there is no absolute right or wrong, it's typically not one thing. It's a combination of actions and non actions that contribute to compound complexity.

Scoping the project without a good handle on assumed elements, having a poor understanding of what needs to happen, lacking communication throughout, poor follow through, not heeding or addressing early warning signs of issues, and not setting clear expectations about what is possible and not involving the client early enough all contribute in some measure to creating an environment of uncertainty.

Worse of all, the compound effect of many of these elements ends up creating a situation highly charged with assumptions where it becomes difficult to tease apart what people say vs. what they've actually done. This is because assumptions come from our biases, which trigger based on ego.

Overall, while it's easy to see in hindsight that the expectations were not met, it's much more difficult to separate and analyze all the contributing factors. Stories are full of emotional data, and despite all assertions to the contrary, stories still win over actual actions (or lack thereof).

Which means our post project reviews, if they happen at all, end up being a finger pointing exercise. We miss the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and to get better. When we stop learning, we end up basing ourselves on what worked before and/or luck, which then creates the conditions for failing again.

In a fast-changing world, even in biology, an organism that is not moving is dead. There's no standing still in life or in commerce.

Nailing the details

Astronaut Chris Hadfield calls it “sweating the small stuff.” We live in a culture that prizes simple solutions, big ideas, and merchandises being positive at all costs. Hadfield says it's much better to be prepared than to have something blow up in your face. In An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth he describes how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement.

Simplicity requires we have a clear understanding of what and who creates value this is where being prepared comes in. We often don't know what we don't know, especially when we venture in a new domain, work with someone we don't know well, or we rely on many dependencies we have no control over.

We owe it to ourselves and to the project to be compassionate and not let the ego ruin the day. It's the best path to earning and keeping trust.

Every project is different, but there are some universals that apply (at a minimum) across the board for a successful project. Developing a comprehensive scope of work that addresses the process with specifics — phases of work acknowledging and addressing dependencies (who does what), communication flows, progress reports cadence, issue escalation, out-of-pocket expenses… is a good start.

But that is not all. To succeed, we must reconcile hope with reality, do what we promised we'd do on the onset, and manage expectations throughout. Even then, projects may still fail due to something nobody anticipated or an unexpected turn the client got cold feet, a dependency didn't come through, in today's world maybe the company or business doesn't exist anymore… It's not the end of the world, unless you're in space, or the project was a bridge, then it may be.

What makes it a total failure is one of humanity when red flags were raised, alternative options were proposed for vetting, everything possible was done to help address issues early and often and communications fall on deaf ears. It may not even done out of malice, it may be a product of poor attention to detail based on assumptions or fear denial often is.

A cavalier attitude does not make problems go away, it magnifies them by underestimating how each detail contributes to the whole. Each problem that goes unaddressed festers, erodes trust (yes, in ourselves as well), and diminishes the kind of confidence we want to have in our ability to deliver on promises.

The devil is in the details… if it seems to be too good to be true, it usually is.

Businesses do get what they pay for if the project is scoped right, then there is no need to worry; only if it isn't. It's also useful to look at it negatively businesses don't get what they don't pay for; meaning trying to go on the cheap with a per project fee that ends up requiring two or three times the amount of work, more resources, a longer timeline, and out-of-pocket expenses to do well is an open door to a poor reputation.

“Buy in hope. Trust in fear.” is a useful aphorism to keep in mind.

[There's a version of the Heaven and Hell story for recruiting, too]