Resolving Cobb’s Paradox


Dr David Hillson FIRM, HonFAPM, PMI Fellow


When Martin Cobb was CIO for the Secretariat of the Treasury Board of Canada in 1995, he asked a question which has become known as Cobb’s Paradox: “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?”

Speaking at a recent UK conference, the UK Government’s adviser on efficiency Sir Peter Gershon laid down a challenge to the project management profession: “Projects and programmes should be delivered within cost, on time, delivering the anticipated benefits.” Taking up the Gershon Challenge, the UK Association for Project Management (APM) has defined its 2020 Vision as “A world in which all projects succeed.”

This sounds good, but is it really possible? And is it even desirable? Do we want to limit the scope and ambition of our projects to only those that we are certain can succeed? Or will this reduce innovation, creativity and appropriate risk-taking? A spectator at a recent Cirque de Soleil performance was heard to say: “I want to see them do things that they can only do half the time.” Isn’t this what every project sponsor or portfolio manager should be saying?!

There are several reasons why it might be impossible to resolve Cobb’s Paradox or to meet the Gershon Challenge or to achieve APM’s 2020 Vision.

  • All projects are risky. Uncertainty is built into every project, since each one is unique and complex, based on assumptions and dependencies, delivering change through people. Although the degree of risk might vary, the zero-risk project does not exist. This means that the probability of success for any project is less than 100%, so there is always the possibility of failure.
  • Most projects include unmanageable risk. Of course we aim to manage risk in our projects, but risk management can never be 100% effective, and each project will carry some residual risk. As a result, some unmanageable risks will occur on every project, challenging our ability to meet schedules, budgets or performance requirements. On some projects the effect of unmanaged risk will be so significant that these projects will fail.


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About the Author

Dr. David Hillsonflag-ukDr. David Hillson


Dr David Hillson CMgr FRSA FIRM FCMI HonFAPM PMI-Fellow is The Risk Doctor (www.risk-doctor.com).  As an international risk consultant, David is recognised as a leading thinker and expert practitioner in risk management. He consults, writes and speaks widely on the topic and he has made several innovative contributions to the field. David’s motto is “Understand profoundly so you can explain simply”, ensuring that his work represents both sound thinking and practical application.

David Hillson has over 25 years’ experience in risk consulting and he has worked in more than 40 countries, providing support to clients in every major industry sector, including construction, mining, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, financial services, transport, fast-moving consumer goods, energy, IT, defence and government. David’s input includes strategic direction to organisations facing major risk challenges, as well as tactical advice on achieving value and competitive advantage from effectively managing risk.

David’s contributions to the risk discipline over many years have been recognised by a range of awards, including “Risk Personality of the Year” in 2010-11. He received both the PMI Fellow award and the PMI Distinguished Contribution Award from the Project Management Institute (PMI®) for his work in developing risk management. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the UK Association for Project Management (APM), where he has actively led risk developments for nearly 20 years.  David Hillson is an active Fellow of the Institute of Risk Management (IRM), and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to contribute to its Risk Commission. He is also a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and a Member of the Institute of Directors (IOD).

Dr Hillson can be contacted at [email protected].