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When projects fail. Who takes the blame?
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Picture yourself as project manager to a project that is run 10 years over its expected completion date and $95-million over budget. From a project management perspective, it's a complete failure. You'd be tempted to call it quits, right?  ​​

Thankfully, the Sydney Opera House team kept going. From an application and prod​uct perspective, their project is one of the biggest successes in history.


Today, it's a World Heritage Site and Australia's number one tourism destination with 8.2 million visitors annually. Famed architect Frank Gehry called it “a building that changed the image of an entire country" when he awarded architecture's top award to the Opera House's architect Jørn Utzon.

Incidentally, Utzon reportedly never saw the completed building. He resigned midway through the project following prolonged disagreements with ,Minister for Public Works, David Hughes.

The lesson from the Sydney Opera House is that failure is a matter of perspective.  In terms of measuring the achievement of the business case, success must be judged based on the project management process (whether it delivered on time, on budget, etc.) and on the product of the project management process and its relevant application in a business or the world at large. So failure can either mean a project wasn't executed properly or didn't find application after execution. These are the parameters to contextualise success.

Why a project fails

If we're looking at failure from a project - not product - perspective only, then these are the biggest reasons projects fail, based on my 35 years in the industry:

    1. A weak project plan. Some project managers tend to jump into a ​project without taking the time to properly plan. Inevitably, that's when issues arise down-the-line.
    2. Changes in scope. Weak planning means that as a project progresses, forgotten factors tend to pop up. That means scope changes, which can translate into budget pressures and problems meeting milestones.
    3. Absence of milestone events. You can't eat an elephant in one sitting. The more often a manager checks in to ensure a project is on track the easier it'll be to spot the need for managerial intervention. It's far better to fix small deviations before they evolve into big deviations.

From a human capital perspective, projects can fail because of:

    1. Inexperienced project managers. As project management has become such a popular profession, there are incidents of under-qualified, inexperienced managers leading projects they're not necessarily equipped to manage. Project Management South Africa (PMSA) is leading a process to designate project managers based on their qualifications, training and experience.  The ultimate goal is to achieve the level of a Professional Project Manager. In a country like SA, the benefits utilizing competent project managers could result in us successfully completing National Development projects, which could havepositive implications for the achievement of the 2030 goals.
    2. Incapacitated teams. As part of the economic recovery plan, the government should prioritise investing in training for project management as a scarce skill.
    3. A failure to prioritise. Often project managers also have another, primary role in a business. They prioritise their functional work and do project management as an add-on they don't necessarily have time for. More mature organisations recognise the importance of integrated, organised applications of functional responsibilities and project management responsibilities within dedicated Project Management Offices.
    4. A lack of authority. Another issue is younger project managers having difficulty having the mandate and authority to lead older, more experienced team members.

"Keep offering your team continuous learning and upskilling opportunities in project management courses. Also, ensure they are comfortable and capable when it comes to working with AI and project management software.”

By MC Botha, Director of the Centre for Business Management of Projects at USB-ED​

How do you handle project failure?​

    1. Realise there's no fairy godmother. No one's going to fix it for you. So, the best thing to do is to be honest, recognise issues as quickly as possible through constant check-ins, and keep asking why. 'Why are we where we are? Why are we going over budget? Why are our resources allocated in this way?"
    2. Assess and reconfigure. Examine the present situation and analyse the deviations in project execution. If you've spent your budget and the project is incomplete, is its business case still valid? You must make a call whether to salvage the project, by reconfiguring the cost-benefit analysis and examining ways to recuperate costs to make continuation viable. The Gautrain is a good example. Its original budget was R4-billion. It ended up costing over R30-billion. But it's now a marvellous asset to Gauteng.
    3. Never play the blame game. Organisations with project management maturity never assign blame but rather have a strong culture of learning. They advocate a 'fail forwards fast' approach that allows for iterative experimentation to catalyse quick, creative solves. Learning from mistakes is a key part of amature project management culture.
    4. Upskill and capacitate your team. Keep offering your team continuous learning and upskilling opportunities in project management courses. Also, ensure they are comfortable and capable when it comes to working with AI and project management software.
    5. After any project – failure or success – it's critical to do an analysis with the team and project sponsor. What went well, what didn't go well and how could you do it better? Throughout the project, record any issues for the post project review, and capture any lessons learned as part of the company doctrine. Changing the methodology, communicating with other team members and formalising the review system are all key aspects of a mature project management culture.  

USB-ED offers a range of project management courses designed to develop key project management – and people management – skills, plus foundational EQ attributes for effective leadership. 

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MC Botha​ is a Senior Lecturer Extraordinaire in Project Management at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and is the Head of the Post Graduate Diploma in Project Management at USB-Executive Development​





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