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.