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Why Projects Fail and What To Do About It

September 3, 2015
Projects fail. It’s a dirty little secret. 70% of change projects fail. 17% of large IT projects fail so badly they actually threaten the existence of the company. 45% of IT projects run over budget, and 56% provide less value than what was anticipated. Regardless of what study you use, people are fairly consistent in delivering projects that go over budget, take longer than expected and produce results that are less than stellar. 
The biggest reason they fail? People don’t speak up. Of course, many speak up after a project is done and in most cases, we review projects after they are finished, especially the ones that go poorly.  We call this a post-mortem.  In medical terms, a post-mortem is an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death. Now think about that. We are trying to determine the cause of death of a project.
What good does that do?  We would love to believe that determining the cause of death of a project leads to learning. However, in most cases, it leads to blame. I am not saying that post-mortems are bad, but I will say that post-mortems have limited benefits. When we use a post-mortem, it must be done in a proper way so that it’s not about blame and it is about learnings. Then, we need to be able to apply those learnings to future situations. In order to do that we must be able to take those learnings and share them across an organization so they become best practices. Amidst all of those steps, typically things go wrong. And even if we have done them all, in many cases, those best practices get set on shelves and people forget about them by the time they are implementing another project. 
What are we to do? How do we get better? One way – a pre-mortem.  A pre-mortem is a hypothetical opposite of a post-mortem.  While a post-mortem happens after a project, a pre-mortem happens at the beginning of a project. The goal is to improve your chances of success rather than learning from an autopsy. It’s based off of research that was conducted by Deborah J. Mitchell of the Wharton School, Jay Rousse Cornell of the University of Colorado in 1989. 
Surprisingly, imagining an event that has already occurred increases the ability to correct reasons for future outcomes by 30%. So a pre-mortem is a management strategy in which a group imagines that the project has failed. The exercise is built to ensure that people speak up at the very beginning of a project about their concerns, and it does even more than that.The exercise drives us to think about the project or the organization as a failure and then work backward to determine all the potential ways the effort could lead to failure. It forces people to play devil’s advocate, reduces and breaks up group thinking and creates a positive, thoughtful environment for discussing barriers and threats to success. Once these barriers and threats to success are identified, leaders are able to work through each one and take preventative actions to ensure the project stays alive and is successful instead of reaching and suffering an untimely death. The next time you have a project try pre-mortem instead of a post.
As always, share your thoughts and experiences on the subject.