I have been thinking about project failure for the last several days. Perhaps because of the healthcare.gov problems or maybe because I put up Christmas lights that failed to entice even a single passing aircraft to attempt landing on my lawn. In a word – disappointing. Expectations were not met. It seems every project that fails in large organizations does so in plain sight but to the utter shock and dismay of the constituents.
After watching IT projects, product launches and government programs go badly over the years I notice five things that conspire to create disappointment. I am sure there are others we could cite but these are the most frequent offenders in my experience.
This problem plagues upper management everywhere. Some senior leaders I have known actually behave as if the ability to deny bad news and move forward as if everything will be great anyway is a virtue. They disguise it as “drive” or “commitment” but at the heart of it is cowardice and an inability to deal with the universe refusing to bend to their will.
This is the Micky and Judy syndrome. For those of you unfamiliar with this film genre from the 1930’s and 40’s , Micky Rooney and Judy Garland were in a series of formulaic feel good movies where starry eyed optimists put on a big show from nothing in an old barn and changing everything for the better. I see this attitude disguised as “innovation” or “out of the box thinking” all of the time. Personally I am a true believer in the entrepreneurial spirit but let us be honest. Few working in corporate IT can sing like Judy and talent really is more important than heart in the long run whether we like to admit it or not. The greatest leaders I know have developed a knack for recognizing the truly great from the hapless hopefuls without destroying the spirit of either.
This is the most dangerous because in this context deception is about masquerading as competence. Purposefully delaying the communication of reality, or worse describing it in flagrantly untrue ways to hide the fact that things are not going as planned. Denial flows downward but is met and reinforced with deception flowing in the opposite direction.
I like to believe this is rare but it does happen. Individuals sometimes have agendas that run contrary to the objectives and in big and small ways create impediments to their advancement. This type of organization subterfuge is often accompanied by a self-righteous justification for their actions, but at the core it is rooted in jealousy and is a sure sign of a weak and corrosive character.
There are though times when things go badly that no one intended, caused or could predict. Fact is these are far more rare than we are willing to admit which leads to the perceived need for the first three. The fact is, disaster is only effectively countered with reality.