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Project Management: Avoiding the Witch Hunt of Failure
by Kevin Dwyer

It's Friday evening, late. No-one wants to be here; except the boss maybe. She's still spitting chips about who is responsible. She thinks we are. We think she is.

It all started to go pear shaped when we hired the third project manager. It's not to say that he was not good at his job. If anything, it is because he was good at his job that we are in this personal mess right now, even though the project is in better shape than it ever has been.

Our first project manager was great; very personable and a whiz with MS Project. He was highly recommended by his referees. I think the problem was not his really. The requirements for the project were poorly stated. It was not his fault that the senior managers could not settle on a tight set of requirements.

[The Chaos Report in 1995, a study of 365 projects, revealed that incomplete requirements (13.1%) topped the list of reasons that projects failed, lack of executive support ranked 5th at 9.3%]

It can be argued that it is the project manager's accountability to demand tight requirements and that is why the good ones are paid a lot of money, but it does seem harsh on such a nice person.

It didn't help that the operations director did not take a liking to him. What could he have done? It was natural to avoid the director if he was going to give you a hard time every time you went into his office. I personally thought it was a good move to formalise the communications by putting in place a communications officer.

I was surprised that others thought that made communications a much more complex task, increasing the risk of failed communications. Some said that the project manager should have resolved the issues with the operations director and not just added cost and complexity to the project because they could not handle the conflict.

[Poor communication ranks as the number one cause of failure (57%) in a 1998 Bull survey of failed projects, and number one in a 1995 OASIG study]

As the project was falling behind and overrunning on costs, it was no surprise that they brought in a new project manager. She was a really bright woman with a firm approach who dealt with the facts, only facts. Although she was strict she hit it off with the operations director who appreciated her no-nonsense approach.

Unfortunately, her no-nonsense approach also led to believing she knew what was best. Her lack of engagement with the users became noticeable down on the floor, but not amongst the steering committee. She was great at managing upwards, but could not engage the system users.

[Lack of user involvement is the second most prevalent cause of project failure in the 1995 CHAOS study into 365 projects]

It wasn't until user acceptance testing that we knew we were in trouble. Whilst we had designed what the client had asked for, it was not what was needed. The users rejected the system as unworkable without a massive change in process which no-one had planned for.

Apparently, the design was flawed from the outset when the user requirements were set. The senior managers and middle manager set the requirements and they ended with a wish list rather than a coherent set of requirements aimed at getting a specific business outcome.

Whilst the change control process in the end was very good, there were a lot of changes. Scope creep was a big factor in the time and cost overruns.

[Scope creep is ranked as an important contributor (top 5) to project failure in four separate studies from 1995 to 1998]

So here we are now; our third project manager who seems to have all the skills of project and people management, personal discipline, communication planning, personal rapport and conflict resolution, hazard identification and risk analysis, financial understanding and technical know-how.

It's been a bit uncomfortable because the new project manager, as well as getting the project back on the rails, has been bringing home some truths about what went wrong with this project because of poor project management skills.

Employing two project managers without the required behaviour skills and knowledge to tackle the project and the business environment probably cost the organisation over a million dollars in costs and tens of millions in opportunity costs.

The one who is really mad though is the boss. She is being held accountable by the board and she is after blood. If she had known it was going to be this difficult, I think she would have spent more time making sure the first project manager could do more than get a qualification, pass a CV inspection and an interview with their hand picked referees.

I guess we'll know better next time.

Kevin is the founder of Change Factory, a company which helps organisations who do not like their business outomes get better outcomes through changing people's behaviour. To find out more about Change Factory and see more articles visit Kevin Dwyer may be contacted at or


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