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Thought Thursdays
Why is project success so elusive?

The discipline of project management certainly seems to hold great promise for job seekers, with the Project Management Institute (PMI) 2013 Talent Gap Report indicating an anticipated global demand for roughly 1,57 million new project management roles each year over the next five years. This demand is driven by the increasing use of project management as the vehicle to deliver products and services across economic sectors. This is good news for project management practitioners. But the demand for project management expertise carries with it an expectation of good project performance. Organisations that adopt formal project management practices and use qualified project management practitioners expect their projects to succeed.

In practice, the success rate of projects across all industry sectors remains disappointingly poor. Findings in a 2013 report by the PMI shows that the success rate of projects has been falling since 2008, with about 17% of current projects failing outright and less than two-thirds meeting their goals and objectives. South Africa has not escaped this trend. In the private sector, most organisations can readily produce examples of important projects failing to meet expectations, sometimes with devastating results. In the public sector, the frequency and recurrence of service delivery protests on a national level have, in one respect or another, some basis in a failed project. The Medupi project must certainly serve as a spectacular example of just such a failed service delivery project. Lloyd Gedeye’s article in the Mail & Guardian in January 2015 reports that the Medupi project was initiated in 2007 to add a further 4 764 MW to the national electricity supply by 2011, with a budget of R69,1 billion. Today, the project has an expected completion date of 2019 at the earliest, with an estimated cost in the region of R154,2 billion. The impact of the failure of this project to deliver, as promised, on the economy and on the everyday lives of South Africans is impossible to calculate. 

Academic and training institutions in South Africa and globally have grown the number of project management offerings in their portfolios, in response to the need for qualified practitioners. The project management skill set has also seen expansion, and the expectation now is that practitioners are more than simply skilled technicians. Project management practitioners must also have the business acumen necessary to assess requirements in a broad business context, and plan and steer their projects accordingly. The academic community has also responded to the need for improved project performance, with many research studies focused on improving project success rates. Several project management standards now exist, developed by institutions like PMI, the Association for Project Management, the Australian Institute of Project Management, the International Project Management Association, and others. Research by Karen Papke-Shields and others has shown that the adoption and use of these standards does improve the chances of project success. Despite these efforts, we are still seeing high levels of project failure. It is perhaps time to put more effort into looking for answers to poor project performance in areas beyond the pure project management domain.

An obvious source of complications that can threaten the success of a project is the environmental context in which the project is executed. Complications can arise for a project from environmental factors as diverse as the political climate, market place conditions, government and industry standards, existing knowledge and skills in the organisation, and risk tolerance levels, among a list of many more. Included in this list of factors that could cause projects to fail is organisational culture. 

Edgar Schein defines organisational culture as the shared, taken-for-granted assumptions held by employees in an organisation that determine how they will perceive and react to their environment. Schein maintains that the functional effectiveness of an organisation’s culture depends on the relationship of the culture to the environment in which it exists. Significantly, research is revealing that organisations across the globe are badly in need of cultural transformation. Gary Hamel argues that organisations have not done enough to keep their culture aligned with the challenges created by the ever-increasing pace of change and the complexity of the modern world. It has been common practice for organisations to measure their success with criteria like environmental fit and predictability. Hamel argues that to survive into the future, these accustomed criteria need to be replaced with criteria like greater flexibility, agility and innovation. Most organisations today therefore find themselves ill-equipped to deal with modern-day demands. Ralph Müller has shown that projects inherit their culture from the organisation, through the structures, policies and practices put in place by the organisation to govern the projects they undertake. So, not only are existing organisational cultures proving ineffective, but the projects initiated within the organisation to deal with modern-day challenges inherit the same ineffective culture. 

While organisational culture may be an abstract concept, it is capable of generating powerful forces in organisational situations. Schein contends that these forces are often behind many frustrating and puzzling organisational experiences. In fact, research done by Charles O’Reilly and others has shown that an organisation’s culture has greater influence over the behaviour of employees than formal control structures and policies. Projects are not immune to these influences. The potential for organisational culture to alter the behaviour of employees, knowingly or subconsciously, has implications for the enactment of project management practice. While organisations might formally adopt recognised standards of project management practice, employees in organisations can deviate from the processes, rules and behaviours considered acceptable. Research done by Jeffrey Pinto has shown that in some organisations deviant behaviour can become so commonplace that employees in the organisation are unaware of the deviance or assume the behaviour to be normal. Thomas Mawhinney maintains that although deviant behaviour could be dysfunctional for the organisation and, in the worst cases, can have severe consequences for the achievement of organisational goals, these behaviours can go undetected for long periods. Those who enjoy the ‘Aircrash Investigations’ television series will have little trouble recalling examples of dangerous aircraft maintenance practices that creep into everyday use, eventually causing devastating aviation accidents.

There is another side to deviant behaviour, a side that conversely has a potential value in the project context. Breaking away from the accepted organisational standards and norms of behaviour might actually be beneficial for project work. Hamel has found that the existing organisational culture is recognised as the biggest obstacle to innovation in organisations. Similarly, Mariano Gallo and Paul Gardiner have found evidence to show that project management practitioners seek less organisational control and more improvisation and flexibility when managing projects delivering strategic objectives. Deviant behaviour could therefore be both a necessary and a positive response to cultural constraints in project work. 

So what does this mean for project management practitioners and for business managers? Firstly, project management standards are important: knowledge of project management tools, methods and techniques, and expertise in the use of these, does contribute to the probability of project success. Secondly, this knowledge and expertise is not always enough to ensure a successful project outcome. There are powerful influences in the organisational culture that have the potential to impact upon the performance of project teams. More research is needed to shed light on the extent and nature of these influences. For now, project management practitioners and business managers should be cognizant of the potential of organisational culture to modify the performance of project teams – and be prepared to take such steps as are necessary to address this reality.

Sharon Geeling.jpg 
Sharon Geeling is a project management practitioner and consultant, and a PhD student in the Department of Information Systems at the University of Cape Town. Her area of expertise is project management.



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