People say I’m schizophrenic about the reasons for project failure, but we don’t care.

Matthew Symes, who leads Concerto’s Assurance services, interviews the alter ego Business Transformation Matthew Symes. Together they explore the early, subtle clues that lie behind a project eventually failing.

Matthew: Welcome! Matthew: Thanks, we’re pleased to be here…… Matthew: So why do projects really go wrong then?


Matthew: Isn’t that something you can take tablets for? Matthew: It’s a sixth sense about the Project Director’s or SRO’s capabilities, an instinctive feeling that they aren’t inspiring confidence, that they don’t quite know what to do, how to build loyalty or nurture a compelling desire for success. You can sense this across the team. Early indicator of project failure: your instinct!


Matthew: Life is complex, isn’t it? Matthew. Combinations of technology, process, speed, inter-dependencies and cost-pressure and mean that most projects are complex. A Project Director should pilot a clean simple course.Early indicators of project failure: people say the project is highly complex.


Matthew: What does a Sponsor really do? Matthew: Compare the strong sponsorship on the London Olympics to that on the Home Information Packs project, which ended up in tatters. The former benefited from strong, enduring Ministerial sponsorship but the latter blew with the wind. Early indicators of project failure: Sponsor unscathed by project failing.


Matthew. I love a good business case – so reassuring. Such a gripping read. A project bible. Matthew: It can be the root of all evil. The “five case model” is now such an art form that its time-consuming encyclopaedic production is delegated to analysts who have no delivery experience. Early indicator of project failure: the team doesn’t believe the business case. 


Matthew: Here’s an easy test. Ask the whole team and the stakeholders what the project’s objectives and benefits are. Early indicator of project failure: Inconsistent “elevator pitch”

Matthew: But isn’t life one long series of trade-offs between cost, time and performance or risk? Matthew. Delivering projects equals managing change, which means compromise between the time objectives, the delivery costs, the performance or scope objectives, the benefits and the level of risk.  Early indicator of project failure:Project director doesn’t have objectives trade-off criteria in place – e.g. how much is it worth spending to avoid delay?

Matthew: Isn’t the biggest clue misalignment of the project objectives with the organization’s? Matthew: No! By definition projects deliver change, so alignment is unlikely. The real problem is that the change management aspects are not appreciated enough and planned for. Early indicator of project failure: the team isn’t embedding the transformation.

Matthew: But surely the objectives include a benefits definition, so that’s all OK? Matthew: Benefits definition comprises both financial (e.g. efficiency savings, profits, revenue growth) and non-financial (e.g. well-being, health, environmental, services, markets, products, brand, safety). The team should manage all aspects. The trouble is, very often they don’t! Early indicator of project failure: Weak / no benefits tracking.


Matthew: Most projects usually have a Project Board, a User Group and Working Groups, with everything properly minuted. There will be delegated authorities and accountabilities.  However, some of these text book governance arrangements will be non-performing. Early indicators of project failure: Board members untroubled  by detail. Board is supremely confident. Board doesn’t have time to add value. Project decisions points and processes not understood. Sponsor and SRO can’t make decisions in time with the project’s pace.

Matthew. Surely a PMO is the answer to all of my problems. Matthew: A bad PMO is a hidden, subversive source of a project’s failure.  It won’t understand what it sees. A bad PMO won’t have the confidence to escalate issues either. Early indicator of project failure: The team regards the PMO as bureaucratic, not solutions-centric.


Matthew: Small is beautiful? Matthew: If possible, break a large project into smaller ones, to form a programme (or ideally a portfolio). Rapid, bounded piloting to explore risks, new technologies, processes and market responses is worthwhile. As long as there is learning and time enough to take it on board. Early indicators of project failure: high value projects; complex market / supplier engagement; big supplier bid teams; long timescales before early results; and no piloting / learning.


Matthew: Agile working is an oxymoron. It means throwing away simple effective project management solutions, switching on the Magimix and seeing what ensues. Early indicator of project failure: any project using Agile Project Management.


Matthew. It’s nearly time for my therapy session. Matthew: Indeed. Projects bristle with risks. The trick is to mitigate them and make a financial allowance within the total anticipated final cost. Add all the weighted “risk pots” up to create a project contingency sum. Bad practice is to apply an optimism bias factor to determine the size of a contingency sum. This disguises risk and separates the thinkers from reality. Early indicator of project failure: A formulaic approach to risk management or using Optimism Bias.


Matthew: An open and shut case? Matthew: Taking into account the length of the planning process and the time for delivery means that most government projects have a sweet spot of about one week when they can be commissioned in any five year cycle. Missing that decisive, tiny moment in time is why such projects become compromised ….. After that the pressure comes on and sub-optimal trade-offs set in. Early indicator of failure:Projects born late in the political cycle.


Matthew: Isn’t the worst thing to have eleven items in a ten-point checklist? Matthew: Are you a Quantity Surveyor? Matthew: This is a serious point – some projects don’t have a learning culture. They regard assurance as a chore or a tick-box gate-progression exercise. A hurdle to get past. Early indicator of project failure: Low learning culture and resistant to constructive assurance.

Matthew: I think we’d better draw to a close now. Matthew: That’s a shame, I was just getting into my stride Matthew: Thank you very much. Matthew: Thank you very much too. Matthew: After you…… Matthew: No, after you……