Projects fail because of unclear scope and success criteria, lack of strategic alignment, lack of buy-in and engagement from senior stakeholders, lack of change management skills, underestimation, inadequate risk management and poor resourcing. According to the PMI, organisations are losing an average of $97 million for every $1 billion spent on projects due to lack of focus on people, processes and outcomes. And that is in spite of more tools and techniques being available to us that help us keep track of the many moving parts of a project. It also appears that project failure rates continue to be high during periods of economic uncertainty and increased competition.
But why do projects continue to fail? An important aspect is the increased complexity of projects and the environments in which they are undertaken. Many factors contribute to this growing complexity – for example, social and technological change, growing global interdependency, increasing numbers of stakeholders and the need to communicate and coordinate cross-culturally. As the ICCPM (International Centre for Complex Project Management) writes in its report Hitting a Moving Target, ‘It is clear that the situation has to be addressed radically and comprehensively. If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got – and there are too many examples that prove what we’ve always got isn’t good enough’.
Stephen Carver, Senior Lecturer at Cranfield School of Management also has a view on why projects continue to fail. He explains that researchers now distinguish between three types of complexity to help us better manage projects: structural, emergent and socio political. Traditional project management techniques such as breakdown structures, critical path analysis and risk management were designed to deal with projects that are high in structural complexity. I.e. projects that are large, technically complex and that have many moving parts. But modern-day projects are also high in emergent and socio political complexity, which most project managers haven’t been trained to deal with.
Emergent complexity relates to how much the project and its surroundings are changing as you are trying to manage it, for example highly innovative projects or a project that is dependent on external world events, such as the price of oil. Socio political complexity is related to soft skills, relationships, personalities and behaviours that arise under stress. It’s this touchy feely stuff, as Stephen Carver calls it, that’s really the hard part, as it isn’t obvious how to manage a large number of stakeholders who behave in infinitely complex ways.
The academics at Cranfield asked about 250 project management practitioners which of the three types of complexity caused them most trouble on live projects. 70% of respondents said that it was the socio political factors, 20% answered emergent complexity and only 10% said their issues stemmed from structural complexity. The researches then asked people which of the three categories of complexity had received the most attention during their formal training. It turned out that 80% of their training was focused on structural complexity, 10% on emergent and 10% on socio political complexity.
In other words, process is necessary to manage structural complexity, but to master other types of complexity we need to be able to deal with behaviours and large amounts of change in relation to our projects. The best way to deal with emergent complexity is to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Change can be good if we open our minds to it and become more agile in our approaches. And to effectively handle socio political complexity project managers need to deepen personal relationships and understand how to listen, build trust, empathise and use different styles of communication.
According to PMI’s research, over 80 per cent of high-performing organisations report that the most important acquired skills for project managers to successfully manage complex projects are leadership skills. Traditional dimensions of project management such as cost, schedule and performance are necessary but insufficient. The world is changing at a rapid pace, and the need for leaders is greater than ever before. We need leaders who can deal with ambiguity, take ownership of the vision, foster collaboration, gain buy-in and motivate the team to achieve the expected outcomes. Thinking and behaving with a traditional project management mindset of control and compliance is not serving us. It is limiting our opportunities and it is contributing to project failure.
Given the right environment, the right mindset and the right support, I believe that all project managers have the potential to be great leaders. Being a leader is not something that is limited to CEOs of a large company. Anyone can be a leader within his or her field. Leadership is not a result of the job title you hold but of the attitudes and behaviours you possess. So get ready and embrace a new way of doing projects and get ready to lead. Stand up tall and sharpen your saw.
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