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02.02.2016 09:36

Are we destined to fail in projects?

Teppo Nurminen

There's quite a few things that animals are not capable of, but which us humans master just brilliantly. These things include self-delusion, excessive optimism, and denial of facts.

I'll give you some examples. In my job, I weekly witness cases where people have been assigned a new project even if their workload already was overwhelming. It is not unusual to bump into percentages like 120%, 140%, or 160%, and this may even have become the prevalent practice of resource allocation.

Why do many organizations keep allocating work to people whose workload is already 100% or more? Especially knowing that 70-80% would be the practical maximum anyway? An even more alarming example: why do many organizations progress to execution with a project the purpose of which has remained more or less a mystery to everyone? Why do we start things pompously, just to fail miserably a few months – or years – later?

From a purely rational viewpoint my resource allocation example is apparent self-delusion. If a robot would study these figures, it would conclude that these people want to fail deliberately.

Why do we still do things like that again and again?

Instant gratification overrides long term pursuit

As human beings, we want to please, we want to belong to various groups, we want to accomplish things, and we want to be respected because of our achievements. These needs are hardcoded in our DNA. The problem with getting there however is, that in this world of instant gratification we are not comfortable with complexity or uncertainty. We are not going to start drilling deep into a more complex substance if we anticipate the task is going to take us more than half an hour. Clearly too much work, and probably not worth the effort anyway.

Human race is infamous for the talent of denying cold facts in case the facts do not comply with our own mental construction. Also, because of the tendency to instant gratification, we find it depressing to start figuring out a permanent solution. Instead we often settle with a quick fix. By ignoring apparent problems we are inviting trouble, and we know it, but we still do it. Despite the awareness we still prefer not to solve the root cause.

Karl E. Weick launched the concept of Superficial Simplicity in the 90's. Superficial Simplicity means the initial state, the moment when everythings still looks clear. The reason everything looks clear, however, is that we have not bothered to take a deeper look. If and when we do look deeper, we face what Weick calls Confused Complexity. When we start understanding more about a matter, we start seeing the vast amount of variables and stakeholders involved. Getting somehow through this jungle does not sound that tempting anymore, and we settle for less, even if Profound Simplicity might have lurked right behind the corner.

Hence we choose the only remaining option: we pretend the problem does not exist

Profound Simplicity is the state where everything looks simple again, but now it's real. Obtaining deeper knowledge about the matter was an obstacle we had to hurdle, but when we crossed the finishing line we knew that now we've done something properly. And now have we a real chance to succeed.

In the resource allocation example we certainly knew upfront that overloading people will not solve anything, on the contrary it would be hurting us in the end. Nevertheless, we did not have the courage to start developing a proper model for estimating workloads, not to mention the processes for project planning in general, or the processes for steering the big picture as a project portfolio. Hence we chose the only remaining option: to pretend the problem did not exist.

So, it is crucial we invest some time and effort in preparation, and hopefully we are smart enough to use a professional facilitator for ensuring the progress. But allowing some time for this does not mean we should extend the overall timeline of the project. To some extent, the more we plan the less we have to work. It is a matter of balance though, and there always must be a finite deadline for the preparation phase.

Allow some time for thinking and discussing, but also set a due date for the fuzzy front-end. And most of all, set both a clear vision and a compelling need for overcoming the confused period. To answer my question in the title: we are not destined to fail, but we must train our ability to question the obvious, to avoid the shortcuts, and to face the inevitable moment of confusion.


Teppo Nurminen is the CEO and a Trainer and Coach in Project Institute Finland.


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