Why Good Project Fail Anyway

I read an article from the Harvard Business Review titled “Why Good Projects Fail Anyway.” The article describes how project plans, timelines, and budgets are typically used to reduce the risk that identified activities in the plan will not be completed correctly. However, the author argues that project managers tend to neglect two other very important risks which include “white space risk” and “integration risk”. White space risk is the chance that not all activities required will be identified and integration risk is the chance that all the activities will not come together properly at project completion.

The author proposes incorporating “rapid-results” initiatives into the project. A rapid-results initiative is part of an overall project plan and involves completing a smaller scale version of the planned project. The goal is for a project team to complete the rapid results initiative from end to end and deliver results quickly. Completing the project first on a smaller scale allows the organization to identify any missing tasks and to ensure the pieces come together properly at the end. After learning from these initiatives, the organization can roll out further rapid results initiatives or move on to completing the full scale project. These initiatives should not be considered pilot projects. Pilots are generally focused on reducing execution risk by testing on a small scale. The goal of these initiatives is reduce white space and integration risk while delivering results.

The article argues that these initiatives are more effective for many reasons. First, it forces teams to be results oriented since they are tasked with managing these projects from end to end instead of providing a recommendation or partial solution. The results orientation is important because it allows testing of the overall plan, it produces actual benefits in the short term, and it is rewarding for teams to actually deliver the results. Second, this approach is a vertical effort that allows teams to identify missing activities from the original horizontal work streams. Lastly, these efforts are fast and last no longer than 100 days. This approach delivers quick wins and fosters a sense of urgency among teams.

Leaders must be careful to balance these rapid results initiatives with overall project activities. Large scale projects with horizontal activities should not be completely replaced with these smaller initiatives. Doing so would eliminate economies of scale and the efficiencies of large scale activities. Leaders should strive to balance these initiatives with longer term activities, use these initiatives to communicate learnings, and incorporate everything into an overall implementation strategy.

I think this is a clever way of approaching project management. It is a great way to test the waters and refine your plan before large scale implementation. I have seen large projects progress to a point where it is hard to revise the plan or incorporate needed activities that were not originally identified in the plan. This often results in project inefficiencies, unplanned costs, and suboptimal results. This approach allows companies to reduce risk and achieve results. Lastly, I think this is a great way to challenge employees and create a rewarding culture.

Source: MATTA, NE; ASHKENAS, RN. Why Good Projects Fail Anyway. Harvard Business Review. 81, 9, 109-114, Sept. 2003. ISSN: 00178012.

4 thoughts on “Why Good Project Fail Anyway

  1. I constantly worry about white space risk, but I didn’t realize that it had a name until I read this article. I found it interesting to think about rapid-results initiatives as a solution to this risk. I agree that a pilot is an opportunity to learn a lot about the project’s potential on a smaller scale with less risk. Another thing to consider is how often projects can incorporate a rapid-results initiative and how the results will be used. By the time a project is ready to have a pilot, the project manager and participants are committed to their ideas, so it can be hard to be unbiased about the results of a pilot. I think it is important to have some success criteria defined prior to the pilot and for project members to be flexible enough about changing the project’s direction based on pilot results. Given that the World Bank initiative was a multiyear project, they had time and resources to create a rapid-results team. I wonder what options there are for smaller projects to reduce white space risk.

  2. First off, HBR is an excellent source of information. I think taking the horizontal impact of a project under consideration is vital. Horizontal changes would seem by there very nature to take longer to take effect, a metaphor of water spreading slowly across a surface comes to mind, versus the assisted trickle down a drain pipe. Having buy in from an organization and people stand point stands to reason as the vital underpinning of making a change as such successful. If people are given a method to resist change, they tend to use it. Providing a flexible and dynamic mindset to conveying the benefits of a horizontal change may help. People need to buy in!

  3. In the real world, all project managers would like the projects to be on time and in budget. But, in reality it doesn’t work like that. Even if the target dates were met and the projects stayed within budget, there would have been some compromise on the results or the quality. In my experience, I’ve found that when the project isn’t going well, people start to work in silos and claim “I’ll do my part and after that it’s their (another team member or project manager) problem, and start finger pointing and finally blame everything on the project manager.
    There are several reasons why projects fail, but I would agree with the article that one of the main reasons is “White space” – leaving gaps in the project action plan by failing to anticipate all the project’s required activities and work systems. Even though it is difficult to know all the required activities in advance, I believe that this is a common issue in several industries and companies because of the lack of subject matter experts in each field these days. Back in the day, people would join companies and stay in the role or in that department for years and build experience. These folks would be considered subject matter experts. Project teams will consist of various individuals who are subject matter experts in various fields. However these days most people want to move around and get cross functional training and corporations encourage that as having several people with versatile backgrounds will reduce the cost for succession planning and making it easier to fill various roles. The down fall to that is it is very hard to find subject matter experts in any field these days. So in my view “white spaces” are the most common reasons for project failures as it is difficult these days to find subject matter experts who will be able to see some of the issue is advance and will be able to help modify the project plan appropriately.
    Managing the risks with “rapid results initiatives” is a great way to deliver mini versions of the big project’s end results. This will help visualize the end results, keep all stake holders motivated and remove any issues that could come up at a later time. My company used this approach when we worked on a 5 Million Dollar ERP system implementation project. The pricing portion was the most complicated portion and the team was very nervous about loading all the prices and then rolling out a price increase to test the current set-up. Instead they built a demo model to see how the price increases would work for different price models (based on quantities, Annual Demand, order frequencies). The team took one product and made three different rounds of prices increases and analyzed the populated customer pricing for that specific product. Then the team then tried the similar approach on a product group and analyzed the results same way. Once the team members and manager felt confident they went ahead and loaded the current prices for all products. The pricing portion of the project was completed on time and within budget.

  4. What an awesome concept of rapid-results initiatives! Thank you for sharing this HBR article with us. Our group recently formed and during our initial planning stage we considered a “rapid-results initiative” and didn’t realize it had a coined business phrase! Here’s what we considered doing:
    our major fundraising event was scheduled to be later, in August. We considered hosting another fundraising event as an additional revenue stream, to be held prior to August. This “rapid-results initiative” would be in a smaller scale, and give us experience and insights as a learning step to adjust our plans for the major event in August. We would identify specific improvements, watch-outs, eliminate unnecessary steps, and in general, test our plans, much like a rapid-results initiative. This type of test run would have hopefully revealed white space (unforeseen gaps in action plans or systems) and integration risks (unforeseen errors if some activities don’t come together by project completion). Our group decided against having a mini “rapid-results initiative” event prior to our main event because of tight timetables. Our overall project scope would have been too broad and turn-around times too fast to learn from the rapid-results inititiative and realistically have the time to adjust plans for the primary event, since the events would only be a few weeks apart.

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