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The impossibility of success

I was able to attend an excellent talk from one of our alumni CEOs who started by saying that no project is impossible. To be honest those words truly bothered me. As a clinical professor of project management and as a former director of project management for more than 20 years, my experience told me that some projects are stillborn, they have no chance to succeed in development. Are some projects simply set up to fail?

Let me step back. All projects have a few things in common: specified scope, resources and allocated schedule. I often worked in environments that were obsessed with the scheduled launch date. I often replied that if we were so focused on the launch of a new product, why didn’t we start development sooner or perhaps add additional resources? All projects play the dangerous game of balancing scope, schedule and resources. In the world of agile development, these decisions are made in real time, on a constant basis and with the client and development team mutually involved in trade off decisions. This is a healthy thing.

We all know we can jettison scope in exchange for accelerated schedules. I am sure we are all guilty of this: drop a handful of features in order to get the product out the door. If this is so simple, then why are so many dates missed and so many product launches failed? I can think of several failed launches in the past few years: Amazon Fire phone was a market failure, while the Boeing 787 was a huge market success and a significantly late and over-budget airplane project (which is not typical for Boeing, a company that runs like a well-oiled machine). We are watching as TESLA readies the launch of model 3

I am of course asking rhetorical questions. There are many answers for why projects fail. The point of this article is to discuss whether project success can be formulaically guaranteed? Is there no such thing as an impossible project? Can every project succeed if simply given sufficient resources and managerial support and clarity of expectations?

Let’s reflect on the APOLLO program. JFK himself set out the objective: land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth in roughly 7.5 years. As we all know, this country was able to achieve that extraordinary goal. While significant money was spent, it was not a limitless pool of resource, after all we fought in Vietnam and had many other priorities in the 1960s.  My question is: Why 7.5 years? Why not 4 years or 3 years? Would those have not been impossible goals? Does anyone believe we would have succeeded with a schedule goal that was cut in half?

In 1966, halfway into the Apollo program, the program suffered a major setback with the explosion of Apollo 1 and the tragic loss of 3 astronauts on the ground. The word at NASA was: they were moving too fast and starting to get sloppy with safety issues, they had to slow down to ultimately hit their goals.

Where do the goals come from? How do you set goals that are realistic, achievable, meaningful and challenging? Nobody wants a bunch of bored engineers, nobody wants a product launched late into a market place, nor does anyone want to burn out your engineering staff to the point they start leaving the project, leaving the company or making mistakes that affect quality, safety or marketability. The ability to set goals that meet this criteria is an art-form that few companies perfect. Compounding this issue is the ever increasing project complexity and the increased speed and highly intense competition in almost all industries making most project goals non-negotiable and market driven.

Many CEOs believe that project success is 100% dependent on the quality and passion and intensity of the people involved. Sheer will can overcome any obstacle. The sports analogy is: every game can be won, if the players have the will to make it happen. If it was just a matter of will, I am sure many more projects would have succeeded.  The lack of will, in the mind of many engineers can come from the concern that the goals are impossible and the expectations are unrealistic.

After the speech, I took the CEO aside and asked her a basic question: Is there really no such thing as an impossible project? Does she really believe that? Because if she did I could give her hundreds of examples where projects were virtually impossible, in hindsight. The response from the CEO, when I confronted her privately, was that she agreed that some projects are not set up for success. Those that are set up properly have a chance to succeed, in the end it still boils down to the people involved, their will, their skill, their determination and tenacity to make it happen.

Here is a link to an excellent article on the success factors for projects written by Jeffery Pinto: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6498856/

About the author

Mark Werwath

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