Projects fail and succeed

85% of projects fail. 85% of projects succeed.

Hang on – that can’t be right.

These very statistics are announced and promulgated throughout both the project management organizational worlds.

The first by the project and program management world and the second by the world that calls on project and program managers to deliver what they need.

I went exploring to discover what and why and how these two claims can be so wildly held, yet so diametrically opposed.

Let’s start with the project and program management world. 

In this world, the challenge is to run a project or program really well. Projects and programs are judged by the planning, the tracking, the reporting, the meeting of milestones and timelines, staying within the budget and managing the resources.  They’re judged by accounting for scope change and drawing risks to attention and the traceability of decisions and defensibility of deviation from plan and outcome.  Sounds mighty fine really and in this world project and program managers and directors self-report an 85% success rate.  Frustration arises when the brilliance of delivering a really well run project is meet with disappointment at the outcome.

Then there’s the world of the organization.

Organizations, and the people who work in them, turn to projects when they want something done that can’t be achieved through their normal course of business.  Projects and programs are used to deliver things and services that won’t otherwise come about. In this world, the processes and all the project stuff are largely irrelevant. In this world the person sponsoring the project or program (i.e. the person responsible for getting the money and executive support to pursue the outcome) only cares about, well, the outcome. They want to see and experience the result and hear the feedback that they did good.  In this world frustration arises when the project and program people declare success when the sponsor hasn’t got what they wanted.  This is the world where 85% failure is reported.

A recent conversation with a CEO highlighted this for me.  He was asking RNC to come and look at a project that had just wrapped up.  In a coffee shop, knees spread, leaning forward and head down – he lifted his head slightly and said “they tell me the project was successful, and maybe it was, but I still don’t have what I wanted”.

It’s as if the two worlds don’t share a common language? Perhaps the answer is as simple as project people adopting the language of the people they serve?

What do you think? Is the gap between running a project successfully and running a successful project too big? and how do we address the perception that project managers and directors are all about process?