The Secret Cause of Project Failures

Project Failures, Why Projects Fail by Prabhaker Panditi,

Was The Pilot Asleep?

As the airplane was touching the ground, the pilot realized that he did not see the other airplane blocking the runway. It was already too late to avoid a collision.   It was not that he was not paying attention. In fact he was paying too much attention: to the display console, airspeed indicator and windshield.  Peripheral objects vanished from his view.

Psychologist Arien Mack of New School University, New York, who reported this experiment by Haines, fortunately on a flight simulator, is not the only one to point out this unusual aspect of  human attention.   Other  cognitive scientists have shown it as well.  People see very little  when not paying attention or ironically when paying complete attention to one thing, excluding everything else.  An important  but often ignored lesson for understanding project failures.

The risks of risk management

Project failures occur due to many factors.  Since the goal of Risk Management is to identify things that can potentially influence project’s progress, it should identify all such factors.  With the use of approaches like  quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis and computerized simulations in Risk Management, you would expect risks to be under control and projects to sail through to destination like a ferry on still waters.  However, a routine search on the Internet on project failures tells a different story.  Despite disciplined application of formal approaches, project disasters abound. An alarming proportion of ferries seem to be going the Titanic way! It seems that there are unknown risks in risk management itself!

The secret cause of project failures

Paradoxically, the presence of these very models may contribute to project failures! Captivating our attention with fancy spreadsheets, colorful charts and never-ending list of scoring and rating models, these tools lull us into a false sense of security and over-confidence.   As I wrote in my earlier article     The Psychology Behind Agile Success,  focused attention leads to greater output and and deep fulfillment. Attention is useful.  Losing perspective is not.

Formal risk analysis methods are invaluable. They impose structure and discipline on risk management process.  Decades of  best practices knowledge and lessons learned enriched these models. Without these, most projects would end in chaos.

The fault does not lie with the models. It  lies with the limitations of our cognitive resources and how attention is used.

Like finances, attention is limited.  It needs to be allocated. During risk identification, the limited attention is dutifully used for the proven and immediately obvious areas identified by formal models. The Pilot’s case is not an exception. We have our own display consoles.  Is is any surprise then that surprises spring surprisingly often!

Project Failures, Why Projects Fail by Prabhaker Panditi,

Hidden Risks and Project Failures by Prabhaker Panditi,

The chart shows that apparent risks are identified and mitigated early. The triangle represents the area of focus.  

Since risks we don’t know that we don’t know lie outside the triangle, they remain hidden and unaddressed till they surface and drag the project down.  The bolt comes from the blue.

The first step in addressing such risks is to acknowledge our cognitive limitations. Once this is done, you need to ask yourself and your team a simple question on a regular basis “what else can go wrong?.” Get multiple perspectives. To avoid treating it as just another agenda item to be quickly ticked off,  it is better to allocate separate time for this . The objective is to focus on possibilities.    Team’s initial response may not be encouraging. It may be on the lines of  “we took care of everything.”  Persist.  Rephrase and ask again.  After a few minutes, a team member may get playful and say “King Kong may come crashing into the building and abduct a few of us.”  This is a good start.  The possibility may be remote but by using humor, he has set the tone for a different kind of thinking.  A kind more conductive to new ideas.

Creative thinking

Sometimes, despite repeated attempts, you may fail to discover anything new.  This may show that all risks have in fact been addressed and there are no unknowns.  It may also indicate the need for broadening the perspective. Or even the need to look at the cognitive biases that may be at work.

To uncover these, team needs to think imaginatively. However, logical and mathematical thinking usually dominates. Creative thinking needs a different approach. There are ways to tap into people’s creative potential.  A great advantage is that once teams get used to the joy new ideas, they use these skills at all stages of the project.  In future blogs, we will look at some creative thinking tools and how they can be used in projects.

Actionable Insight

Recognize the limitations of attention and that all risks may not be apparent. Conduct regular devoted meetings to identify possible risk factors not being addressed by whatever formal methods or models you may be using.

Share your thoughts
Have you faced any situation where unknown risks surfaced.  How did you handle these?  Go ahead and leave a comment. Share your ideas with others.
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Category: Project Success
  • Krishan says:

    Hello Prabhaker
    This is very nice blog, nice thought risk of risk management. ERP project success as we know depends on the multiple factor. As enabler we should be aware of these factors and any hidden factor as you mention.

    Nice to see this blog.

    Krishan Kumar

    October 30, 2012 at 3:06 am

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