By Michael O’Brochta
Bad projects abound, and research by PMI and others has provided useful insight into the underlying causes of bad projects. This paper looks beyond why projects go bad into why bad projects are so hard to kill. It explains how sunk cost, groupthink, escalation of commitment, and conflicts of interest contribute to keeping death march projects needlessly alive.
Each of these behaviors is defined and illustrated using project stories from history (the sinking of the Titanic and the Concord jetliner), project stories from the author’s own personal experience climbing some of the world’s tallest mountains (McKinley, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro), and project stories from business (Abilene Paradox and industry-funded soda studies). Some recently published research about the neural science underlying these behaviors is referenced. The impact of these behaviors is described and then linked to the undercutting of ethics, trust, leadership, and project success.
A list of actions is provided that project managers can take to help avoid being victimized by bad projects.
Since McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America, it is considered to be one of the world’s “seven summits.” Its height of 20,320 feet and proximity to the Arctic Circle has earned it the reputation as being the coldest of the seven. The temperature on the upper portion of the mountain during the spring climbing season averages 40 degrees below zero. Ice axe, crampons, and ropes are required for the entire three-week climb.
Climbing McKinley is a project. My McKinley project was successful; I reached the summit, and I returned safely. I have done similar on two other of the world’s seven summits: Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro. Helen, one of the members of our climbing team, was not so successful. Her project went bad, she did not kill it, and on summit day, it almost killed her. Even though Helen was a former Olympian, even though she was an experienced mountain climber, and even though she set a record for her solo trek to the South Pole, Helen succumbed to altitude sickness and hypoxia. She had to be carried down the upper portion of the mountain; she lost portions of several fingers and toes.
Helen’s project started going bad days prior to summit day; it went from bad to worse during the days leading up to the summit attempt, yet she persisted. She did not kill the bad project.
Exhibit 1 – Bad McKinley Project
Bad projects waste money and resources, divert attention from good projects, and undercut future projects by sewing seeds of doubt about organizational competence. And, since bad projects are all too common, there is a probability that many, if not most, project managers will be saddled with a bad project or two during their careers. That is too bad, because in today’s project based organizations the careers of project managers rise and fall with the outcome of their projects; a bad project can short-circuit the career of the project manager with the misfortune of being responsible for its outcome. In extreme cases, such as the bad McKinley project described in Exhibit 1, the consequences of failing to kill a bad project can be life threatening.
Statistics about the likelihood of a project going bad are, unfortunately, all too easy to come by. In PMI’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession Report (PMI, 2017), we find that only 38% of the project outcomes met the original goals and business intent, met the original budget, and met the original schedule. The Standish Group has been tracking project success rates in the information technology industry for years, and their findings are equally bad. During the 2,000-2,015 period, they report project success rates that hover between 29-31% (Standish, 2015).
Estimates of the associated financial impact of bad projects vary widely, but they all point toward a huge financial waste. The PMI 2017 Pulse of the Profession Report (PMI, 2017) estimates that $97M is wasted for every $1B spent on bad projects; that’s 10% of the project budget. Consider how many more good projects could be funded and consider the positive impact to organizational goals and corporate bottom lines if only a fraction of that wasted money could be redirected.
About the Author
Michael O’Brochta, who has managed hundreds of projects during the past thirty years, is also an experienced line manager, author, lecturer, trainer and consultant. He holds a master’s degree in project management, a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and is certified as a an ACP and a PMP. As Zozer Inc. President, he is helping organizations raise their level of project management performance. As senior project manager at the Central Intelligence Agency, he led the project management and systems engineering training and certification program to mature practices agency-wide. Mr. O’Brochta’s other recent work includes leading the development of standards and courses for the new U.S. Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers.
He serves at the PMI corporate level as the Chair of the Ethics Member Advisory Group; he is a graduate of the Leadership Institute Mater Class. Mr. O’Brochta has written / presented papers every year at PMI global Conferences during the past decade-and-a-half as well as at many international, and regional conferences. Topics that he is currently passionate about include how to get executives to act for project success and great project managers. Since his recent climb of another of the world’s seven summits, he has been exploring the relationship between project management and mountain climbing.
Michael O’Brochta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.