A world where all projects succeed needs a culture change: Adrian Dooley at Conference: Zero

Adrian Dooley, director of APMG and originally a construction project manager before he started helping other people do their projects better, was another one of the Conference: Zero presenters last month. He was reflecting on the APM’s vision of a world where all projects succeed, and his main point was that we need culture change in order to get there.

The same mistakes

730 people worked on the Pantheon in Rome for several years. The pillars were constructed elsewhere and brought to the city. When they arrived, Adrian said, they were 10 feet shorter than required, so the Romans did some hasty rework on the portico. He used this example to illustrate the fact that projects have been going wrong for a very long time, and shared a list of reasons why projects fail from a presentation to the IPMA conference in 1972.

Adrian Dooley's list of why projects fail, illustrated with the Pantheon in Rome
Adrian Dooley’s list of why projects fail, illustrated with the Pantheon in Rome

“These are obvious things that we need to get right,” he said. “So why are they not easy to fix? I don’t think much has changed since Pantheon time. It’s down to human nature.”

He gave a more up-to-date example of simple issues that aren’t being acted on by sharing extracts from post-implementation reviews from a major UK utility business. The lessons learned included:

  • Lack of communication to the business: clear communications plans should be developed to ensure regular updates are provided to business stakeholders.
  • User requirements are not tracked/documented: more user involvement could have prevented late changes due to requirement misunderstandings.
  • Reluctance by operational staff to cooperate with project team: stakeholders to be recognised earlier to ensure business buy in.

It’s not exactly rocket science, is it.

It’s the reason why diets don’t work

Adrian said that even though people who do projects have completed qualifications and attended courses they are still making the same old mistakes, and nothing really changes. Like faddy diets that promise weight loss through grapefruits or nuts or fish or chocolate cake, the reality is that if you want to lose weight you have to eat less and move more. It sounds simple, but it isn’t because we are pre-programmed to get the calories where we can, and sometimes it’s socially as well as genetically difficult to say no to food you don’t really need.

There are often social reasons to make changes to how we do projects, Adrian explained, and we certainly aren’t without our own set of latest crazes, like the introduction of planning software in the mid-80’s, a rush to get qualifications in the mid-90’s, Agile and then the focus on PMOs around 2008.

“These are the quick ineffective diets of the project management world,” Adrian said. He didn’t imply that they won’t work, but that they won’t work as standalone options. Getting all your project managers through PRINCE2® accreditation will not give you successful projects, and neither will introducing Agile. You need to pull everything together for a complete lifestyle change and that’s not easy.

Stop complaining about project failures

Adrian said, “It’s pointless carping on about the reasons why projects fail. What we need to do is focus on what makes them succeed.” Having said that, the vast majority of Adrian’s talk was about project failure and it was only at the end that he put forward this idea. He shared a quote from Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Adrian argued that we need to create a new model involving major cultural change. This, he said, included changing the public view of project management to move away from the idea of The Apprentice where everyone is a project manager and no one does it well, and moving to Chartered Status. “We’re meant to be the kind of people who can achieve this kind of change, cultural change,” he said.

I would have liked to hear more about this but the presentations at Conference: Zero were all very short and Adrian didn’t have the time to go into detail about what we could practically do to make this change now, both for the general public and for the projects we work on today. However, he did have some advice.

“I believe very simply what we have to do is practice what we preach,” he said. “We know about establishing objectives, setting a vision and implementing change. There are not complicated reasons why projects fail. We just need to do the basics right.”

He added: “The APM strategy for the year 2020 is to create a world where all projects succeed. Whether or not that’s possible, we’ll have to see but it’s worth striving for.” If we need a new model and some major cultural change we’ll have to start thinking about what that actually looks like now, as 2020 isn’t that far away.