• 01 October 2019
  • USB-ED
  • 4 min

Project management does not guarantee project success

Project management – why is success so elusive?

Project management is in hot demand (especially ICT/IT project managers) in South Africa, with top project managers earning top salaries according to Business Tech.  The demand for project management practitioners was – and still is – driven by the use of project management as a vehicle to deliver products and services across sectors.

This has proven good news for project management practitioners – although the demand for expertise also carries an expectation of good project performance. After all, if your organisation is adopting formal project management practices and employing qualified practitioners, you expect your projects to succeed. But this isn’t always the case.

How successful is project management really?

In practice, the success rate of projects across all industry sectors is disappointingly poor. PMI reports that, since 2008, approximately 17% of global projects fail outright while less than two-thirds meet their goals and objectives.

In both South Africa’s private and public sectors, important projects such as service delivery have often made national headlines for failing. The Medupi Project serves as one such example. According to a report by the Mail & Guardian in January 2015, the project was initiated in 2007 and yet, in 2019, has still not been completed and now costs R154.2 billion (compared to its initial budget of R69.1 billion). Read our article on failed projects for more on this.

And despite the best efforts of academic and training institutions across the globe, with increased numbers of project management offerings in their portfolios, there is still a very high level of project failure within the industry. With project management courses offering more technical expertise and several project management standards being introduced by institutions such as PMI, the Association for Project Management, the Australian Institute of Project Management and the International Project Management Association, amongst others, it seems the answers lie beyond the management domain.

What challenges threaten project success?

There are many aspects to project failure. One obvious factor is the environmental context in which the project is executed. From the political climate, marketplace conditions and risk tolerance levels to government and industry standards, and poor skills, the environment that surrounds the initiation and implementation of a project plan can harm the project’s success.

In addition, unrealistic expectations, incompetence and lack of cohesion can also contribute to project failure. The latter can be seen as a direct result of organisational culture. Although not generally associated with project failure, organisational culture plays a large role in whether a project sees success or not.

What is organisational culture and how does it affect project success?

Edgar Schein defines organisational culture as the shared, taken-for-granted assumptions held by employees in an organisation that determine how they will perceive and react to their environment. According to Schein, an organisational culture is effective when relationships to the environment exist within it.

It’s no secret that cultural transformation is needed across the globe. As Gary Hamel argues, this is because organisations have not aligned their cultural values to the challenges of the modern world. And, as shown by Ralph Müller, projects and how they are managed take their cue from the organisation’s structures, policies and practices. In other words, the organisational culture. This reveals that if an organisational culture is ineffective, in theory, any projects undertaken by that organisation would be ineffective as well.

But how exactly does it affect project success? Research by Charles O’Reilly and others has proven that organisational culture greatly influences the behaviour of employees, even more than structured policies and procedures. As a result, projects undertaken by the organisation’s employees, or where employees are greatly involved, will be impacted by the employees’ behaviour. Additionally, employees may deviate from the acceptable processes, rules and behaviours associated with project success – sometimes without realising it, as Jeffrey Pinto’s research makes clear.

How can organisations’ improve project success?

Although deviant behaviour by employees can lead to project failure, it can also lead to project success. Breaking away from the accepted organisational standards and norms of behaviour may be beneficial for project work, says Hamel. Mariano Gallo and Paul Gardiner have found evidence that project management practitioners often seek less organisational control and more improvisation and flexibility, which helps them deliver strategic objectives. Therefore, as much as deviant behaviour leads to project failure, it can also be a necessary and positive response to the cultural constraints of project work.

What does this mean for project management practitioners and business managers? Firstly, that project management standards are important. These include a knowledge of project management tools, methods and techniques, and expertise in the use of these. However, knowledge and expertise are just one facet of project success. The influence of organisational culture can also have an impact on a project team.

While more research is required to shed light on the extent of these influences, project management practitioners must be cognisant of how organisational culture modifies the performance of their employees working on a project – and be prepared to take the necessary steps to address this.

The University of Stellenbosch Business School Executive Development (USB-ED) offers various programmes in Project Management that will help prepare future executives for the demanding role of managing teams and projects across an organisation. Click here for a full list of USB-ED’s courses.

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