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Project Management’s Five Deadly Sins

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70% of all IT projects fail

Since the mid-1980s, the Standish Group has published the world’s largest study on IT projects – the Chaos Manifesto (formerly called the Chaos Report). Over the years they have examined over 70,000 projects, and what’s startling is the amount of IT-related projects that fail. In the latest poll for example, only 32% of projects reached a successful outcome.

Project Management’s five mortal sins

The Chaos Manifesto names five deadly sins and five commandments of project management. According to their research, proficiency in these is one of the factors behind a successful project. Below you’ll find my take on the five deadly sins, (I won’t go into the commandments at this time). The points are from the Chaos Manifesto, but the descriptions and examples are my own interpretation of them.

1. Over Ambition. Over Ambition involves you as a project manager or project originator taking on too much at once. You want to do more than is really necessary and are blinded by what can potentially be achieved. Therefore it’s important to remember that with today’s technology pretty much anything is feasible, but not at the same time, within the same project and on a limited budget.

2. Prestige. Prestige is often (but not always) linked with ambition. It’s about you as a project manager having an arrogant or overconfident attitude towards team members, clients and/or managers in the organisation.

As projects are often given a special status in a traditional line organization, it’s understandable that project members may feel a certain amount of prestige. What’s more, this can be an advantage, for example, in bringing together the team and encouraging them to effectively work towards the same goals. But it’s important that the team members don’t lose a grip on reality or start working against the line organization.

3. Ignorance. Ignorance can be found at every level: project management, project members, project originator and in the line organization. Poor understanding of project goals and overall objectives of the business can quickly lead to a project heading in the wrong direction or breaking down completely. Moreover, there is a tendency for the steering group and the project owners to withhold a certain amount of information from the project team. Particularly in large organisations where there is usually a number of different agendas in play and the project manager may not fully identify with the agenda of top management, even though, in many cases, it has an effect on the project.

The Chaos Manifesto also mentions the opposite scenario, i.e. that the steering group and project owners do not keep themselves fully informed about a project. This is referred to as “rational ignorance”, that is, stakeholders feel that it takes more effort than its “worth” to keep themselves informed.

Both of these factors are important and should be kept in mind by a project team in order to avoid potential problems. In future projects I’m going to try to estimate the “worth” to the owner of having sufficient information and how I can reduce the time it takes to get the right information, as well as the “cost” of providing it.

4. Absence. Absence may be due to a number of reasons. Absence of project members is clearly visible because it is leads to a direct decrease in production. And, as it is easily detected, action can be taken quickly to rectify the problem. However, it becomes more difficult when the key decision-makers, or members of the project steering or client steering groups are absent. It’s important to remember that even though many stakeholders may have an interest in a project, it is not always reflected in the amount of time they spend working on it. As a rule of thumb I usually say that if you want to influence or make decisions, you have to appreciate that things takes time, and if you allot the required amount of time, it is almost always an advantage to have more people in the project team. However, few things can be as damaging to a project as when people expect to influence and be involved in any decisions taken without spending time on it. “We’ll take a look at it once you have developed the first draft” or “Here are our guidelines, but we cannot take part in the process” are two examples of situations that you should watch out for. If somebody wants to influence the project they should be there when decisions are made, not just checking them retrospectively.

5. Dishonesty. Dishonesty in this context is, for instance, knowingly concealing facts from a project owner or project members. It can involve creating advantages for personal gain, but in many cases it’s more likely that a project manager is simply too nervous to tell the whole truth.

By Erik Fors-Andrée

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