Why Long Projects Fail So Often

A long-duration project is more likely to fail outright, meaning it will be cancelled or will not be used, because it outlived its usefulness prior to implementation.

This is even more true for technology projects.

See my project failure case studies for a number of prominent examples: LeasePlan paid $100 million for a SAP system that never went live, Hertz paid Accenture $32 million for a website that never went live, and of course the £10 Billion IT Disaster at the NHS.

But also projects that do go live after a long time (usually with a significant budget and schedule overrun) still fail often.

Being over time and/or budget does not necessarily mean failure. But not delivering enough value is. And value creep is a real killer on any long project.

Value = Benefits — Costs

Value creep is when the benefits of your project progressively go down while the costs go up. The result is a loss in project value, often resulting in a move from positive to negative returns.

And this is happening all the time. Most long projects are subject to the scope changes, unforeseen events, and time and cost overruns that represent this value creep.

Of the various reasons that make long-duration projects fail so often, the most significant is the inevitable changes that will occur in the business environment, which will require adjustments to virtually all elements of the project.

Keeping executive support and interest at the needed levels gets more difficult over time. Especially on long projects, executive sponsors get reassigned to other projects, never totally engage in the project or simply lose interest as the project drags on.

Team fatigue and burnout lead to complex human interactions and unavoidable staff turnover, both of which are difficult to predict and manage.

Completion is satisfying. Being able to deliver a finished project is a big part of being fulfilled at work. That’s why projects that stretch into a far-off horizon are challenging for even the most seasoned project manager.

So what should you do?

Short and fat projects are the answer.

Short and fat projects imply that your company runs a small number of short projects in parallel, armed with sufficient resources.

The alternative is running many long and thin projects concurrently, which means that your organization’s resources are spread insufficiently between many parallel projects that are having a hard time crossing the finishing line.

The underlying concept is visualized in the diagram below.

Image for post
Image for post

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that short-duration projects are more likely to be successful than prolonged endeavors.

And of course faster realization of benefits is just better. A dollar earned today is more worth than one earned next year.

Also when you are done after 6 months instead of 12 months you can use the existing team for a different project delivering even more benefits for your organization.

So not only do you get your benefits for your original project sooner and/or longer, you will get those for your next project sooner as well because it starts earlier and is staffed with an experienced team.

A reasonable recommendation would be to try to complete any project within 6 to 9 months.

For large (and normally long) projects the only way to get the duration down to this level is to structure the effort into a program comprising multiple projects and to use incremental/iterative solution development.

In a nutshell: Long projects without usable intermediate results have a high risk losing value, relevance, executive interest, support and staff.

Originally published at https://www.henricodolfing.com.

Written by

I help C-level executives in the financial service industry with interim management and recovering troubled technology projects.

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