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Let’s not get hung up on the ‘f’ word

Source: Public Sector Executive Feb/Mar 2015

A major new piece of research by APM looks at the reasons for project success. APM’s James Simons explains.

Project failure has been widely reported, researched and speculated over, with commentators the world over looking to provide a single definitive answer to an age-old problem: why do projects fail? But what if we took the question and flipped it, so instead of asking why projects fail, we focused instead on why projects succeed?

As part of its profile-raising activities, the Association for Project Management (APM) has commissioned a piece of independent research entitled ‘The Conditions for Project Success’. The research aims to identify the optimal environment in which projects can succeed and then measure the degree to which those components within the framework exist in actual projects.

The research of more than 800 pan-sector project professionals revealed the following: it endorsed and enhanced a framework of success factors produced by APM; it prioritised how important those components are; it also highlighted that frequently those components aren’t evident within projects and programmes.

With regards to points one and two, the research identified a five-step formula to take to senior decision makers – the intended audience for the research (those that APM wishes to influence and engage with). The five factors considered most important were:

  1. Planning and review
  2. Governance
  3. Clear goals and objectives
  4. Competent teams
  5. A commitment to project success

Each was rated highly by respondents as either ‘critical’ or ‘very important’ to project success. Project planning and review scored 86%; governance 88%; clear goals and objectives 89%; competent project teams 87%; and a commitment to project success 87%. However, problems occur when theory turns to practice, which brings us neatly onto the ‘missing’ components.

Out there in the real world, a gap begins to emerge. While most of those surveyed acknowledge that they know what makes a project successful, the ‘how’ – or how to apply the knowledge in a project scenario – was more problematic. For example, when asked to rate the presence, or otherwise, of one of the five, planning and review, 4% rated it as excellent; 14% said it was absent or poor.

In fact, of the five factors considered most critical, only effective governance performed consistently well, scoring an average of 7.3 out of 10. The others, including having a clear set of goals and objectives, were often found to be in conflict – or worse still, absent altogether.

So, work to be done. But before we get carried away, or too hung up on the ‘f’ word, it is worth noting that, by and large, UK projects are in a healthy place. As touched on earlier, the research reveals a commonality of purpose around managing projects properly. There was no element of surprise or ‘mystery’ in the process steps identified – simply put: get the basics right and the rest will follow.

Recent successful project examples support this. The 2012 London Olympic Games famously made a point of ‘locking down’ goals and objectives to mitigate the risk of external influences and political ‘flip flopping’. Crossrail, too, has reaped the rewards of effective governance, and, as a result, has seen its efforts go largely unreported in the national press (always a sign that a project is on track to deliver!)

Furthermore, if we look at the levels of success reported – ranging from wholly successful to moderately successful (and factor in the modesty from those not used to shouting about success) – it is possible to claim that 93% of projects in the UK are delivered successfully.

Of course, it is possible to take the opposite tack, and highlight that only 22% of projects are considered wholly successful, or 17% are not delivered to time, or 12% are missing quality targets. But for the purposes of this piece, let’s stay with positives and say that, although there is no magic bullet or single success factor, specific blends of the factors identified by APM all feature strongly in recently completed projects and the likelihood is, if these are in place, you create the optimum conditions for project success.

The Conditions for Project Success report will be launched at the APM Conference on 19 March at Kings Place in London.

(Photo: Dragados-Sisk JV / John Zammit) 

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