It’s not unusual for promising new projects to end badly. At times, the issue seems to be a project manager’s perseverance. The PM running the project persists with a crippled venture when he should have long ago bailed out of their course of action. At other times, it seems that disappointing interim results demolish all hope for a turnaround, and a company accepts a million-dollar write-off much too soon.

What makes leaders act in either of these ways is an age old question.  Is it inevitable for competent managers to be drawn to quicksand? Are some managers too risk averse to be of good use? The answer to these questions might be yes. But often as not, an out of control project has one of four origins: the project’s dynamics, the personal motivations of the project managers, social pressure placed on the project’s leadership or administrative inertia.


The Project’s Dynamics

A project’s success can be impeded by attributes of the project itself. For example, project personnel might inflict project scope, schedule or cost wounds by failing to consider appropriate issues in a risk assessment. On the other hand, the team might consist of individuals who lack essential skills. But project leaders might also misinterpret temporary problems as long-term ones, or inappropriately assume that the achievement of a “milestone” means things are progressing as expected.

A project might also go out of control because it’s difficult for leaders to terminate projects with both little salvage value, such partially completed facilities, and high closing costs, such as penalties for breached contracts. When work stoppage imposes significant costs, leadership may prefer to view setbacks as correctable occurrences given enough time or money. In this case, even if there is no expectation of a quality end product, the project team hangs on, hoping they can recoup a portion of the project investments.


Project Manager Motivations

Project managers may be aware it’s time to bale out rather than continue a project, but choose not to do so for personal reasons. For instance, project leaders may know that certain costs or asset salvage values weren’t considered in a decision-making model. Fearing he will be blamed for the oversight, a PM may not terminate the project but rather continue it hoping for a successful outcome.

In other cases, a manager sticks with a doomed project simply because the ups and downs of the current project are very similar to that of another project for which the PM received a reward. This can be true even if the PM recognizes the original success was a fluke of nature.

In addition, companies sometimes reward managers who stick with projects until they are successful, irrespective of any short-term disasters. Consequently, managers may not recognize at what point project risks become unacceptable. Also, it’s not unusual for a PM to see only that which affirms preexisting beliefs. For this reason, managers may focus on what is going well, and ignore what is not. Consequently, the PM may continue investing company resources in a lost cause.


Social Pressures

A manager might ensure his project persists to cover up the mistakes of coworkers. In this case, fearing being penalized for his lack of oversight, the PM does what’s necessary to keep a project going hoping for the best because his reputation is closely tied to the project. In addition, if a company culture rewards leaders who stick with a project until it’s a success, it’s doubtful a PM will call it quits easily.


Administrative Inertia

It’s difficult to withdraw from a losing project if an organization is often guilty of administrative inertia, or failing to act when it should. In this culture, it might be easier for a PM and stakeholders to stay the course than take an action that would force a company to recognize its inertia and make organizational changes, such as policy changes or reassigning personnel.

Consequently, as a project begins to fail, those politically aligned with the project may continue to support it.  For example, advocates with influence on budget committees may resist efforts to stop funding the project.

Projects go out of control due to some or all of four issues: administrative inertia, social pressure, PM motivations and project dynamics. But regardless of the issues at play, one of two scenarios will result from an out-of-control project:  a crippled project will persist that long after it should be shut down or a project that might ultimately succeed is shut down much too soon.


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