Why We Are Afraid to Tell the Truth about Project Failures

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on project failure and I have noticed some interesting patterns regarding denial and the fear of admitting failure or mistakes.

Since 1994, the Standish Group has been conducting bi-annual studies of IT projects and the success and failure rates for those projects.  Dubbed the Chaos Studies, the research is widely quoted as the industry standard (though recently there is some criticism of the data). Since the inception of these Chaos Studies, the reported statistics for projects that fail, are challenged or succeed have been roughly the same (see summary below).  The cost of these failed projects and the amount of waste represented is staggering but that is not the point of this post.


The point of this post is not project failures (we’ll tackle that later), it is fear and denial. I have been out talking to people about troubled projects and referencing these Chaos Studies.  I have found that very few IT Leaders, CIOs, and IT project managers are even aware of these studies and failure statistics.  When asked they do acknowledge that there are a high rate of failures but don’t pay attention to industry studies on it nor do they think of it as a call to action as I do.  To me, this seems the rough equivalent of a pitching coach not knowing the ERA for any of his pitchers or a life insurance salesperson not being aware of actuarial tables.

But it also seems to me that there is another factor at work and that is a professional disdain for telling the truth (aka denial).  As a program manager, I have seen many resumes for project managers.  The vast majority of those resumes state that all the projects were delivered “on time on budget” as if it were a mantra.  If only roughly 1 in 3 projects are considered successful, there must be someone responsible for the other 2 in 3 projects that were not successful.  Somebody is not quite owning up to those problem projects.

A recent LinkedIn discussion post touched on a closely related topic – “Do we really think someone will declare their project is in trouble”.  The spirited discussion revealed some interesting attitudes about fessing up to a problem project situation.  Some of the opinions stated were that it’s a professional/ethical responsibility to declare you are in trouble; it is a sign of a good project manager to own up and ask for help; we learn the most from our failures; anyone who doesn’t own up should be tarred and feathered, etc.  One common thread in many of the responses was a need for an external QA function to provide an external view on the health of the project.  That is, we need someone other than the PM to tell us what is really going on.

Here are my personal opinions on why people don’t admit their failures or reach out when in they are in trouble.  I believe that they are afraid; afraid that people will think less of them or that they are incompetent.  I also think that some people, project managers, in particular, are afraid to ask for help because it makes them look weak.

While the Chaos Studies may be skewed in their reporting of failure, I think most of us would readily admit that there is a relatively high rate of failure on IT projects.  We need to have less denial about the start of our industry, more honesty about the state of our own projects, and turn this around so that we see failure as part of the learning process.  We need to not only acknowledge our own failed initiatives but harvest them for the lessons they can provide.

Tina Seelig wrote about failure as a learning opportunity in her 2009 post, You can’t spell failure or success without U.  She talks about how she requires students in her class to write a failure resume showcasing all the mistakes they have made.  She sees this as a valuable reminder to extract all the lessons from failure and to see failure as a key part of the learning process.  As she has noted, if you want more successes, you have to tolerate more failures.

Here are what I see as the lessons for project managers:

  1. The truth always comes out and so it is best for you to share it. You will be more favorably regarded by telling the truth rather than denying problems or reaching out for help. It may take a while, but the truth eventually comes out.
  2. Reach out for help when you need it.  Asking for help is not only responsible, it is also good and appropriate communications and expectations management.  Besides, you stand a much better chance of heading off major problems before they grow if you are willing to admit you need help and seek it.
  3. When hiring project managers, watch out for those with a spotless record.  Be suspicious of those who say ‘on time on budget’ as if it were a mantra or a secret passphrase. Ask people about their failures and see what they are willing to share.
  4. Harvest every project for the lessons to be learned.  A project post-mortem should be conducted for every project, especially those projects that are canceled mid-stream. Also, PMs should maintain a journal of every success, failure, and lesson learned through the execution of the project. Ideally, this is something that is done using a few minutes each day or once a week.
  5. Expect failure as a requirement for success.  If you and the people around you are not failing with regularity, you are not trying hard enough or taking enough risks.

IT Project success rates aren’t going to improve until we start telling the truth about where we are and what is causing the failures.  We need to extract the lessons from our failed projects and use them to continually improve our project success rates.



When in Doubt, be Nice!

Last week, a good friend and mentor of mine overheard a conversation I was having with one of the team leads on my program.  I was not satisfied with the leader’s performance and I was not nice in my remarks about what I expected.  My friend observed the exchange between me and the team lead and she spoke up and said: “When in doubt, be nice”.

Her comment stung.  I pride myself on my political correctness and being nice to others.  Being called out for not being nice hurt.  And she was right.

Spinner2 The truth is that I have a hard time balancing being kind and getting the results that I want.  I am not suggesting that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but I think that I have placed a higher premium on one than on the other.  I choose to be nice rather than to be satisfied, and this is a real problem for me.

I was recently in a weekend workshop on growing as a leader.  While the workshop helped me to spot several strengths of mine, it also revealed to me a couple of key weaknesses:

  1. I don’t go for my own personal satisfaction; I am OK with coming up short.
  2. I am not honest with myself about my lack of satisfaction.  I am ok with feeling like a victim, rather than getting what I really want.  I don’t tell the truth about what I really feel or mean.  (For more about telling the truth, see my previous post Tell the Truth).

Going for Your Own Personal Satisfaction

Let’s start with the idea of going for your own personal satisfaction.  The principle of responsibility says that I am responsible for my actions and my outcomes.  If I don’t get the results that I want, or if I am not satisfied, that is my responsibility and mine alone. That is all great but the problem for me is this – I am OK with being dissatisfied as it gives me something to complain about, a reason to blame someone else, a way to be a victim, or just a general ‘out’ about not giving it my all.

The better approach is to go for 100% satisfaction of what I want.  This requires being clear about what it is that I want and working with others to make sure it happens.  No excuses, no complaints, and no blaming others.  Just going for what I want and not being satisfied with less.

I like what I wrote about personal satisfaction in this post from January 2009:

“Instead of seeking comfort, we should seek our own satisfaction.  In every situation, we should be monitoring our own level of satisfaction and using that as an internal gauge for whether we are doing the right thing.  My mentor Rich Blue calls this going for our 100% satisfaction.  If you seek to get 100% satisfaction out of every meeting, presentation, project assignment, and workshop, you won’t have to worry about feeling comfortable.  Being satisfied is a higher value than being comfortable.”

Let me give you a real-life example.  If you are at a restaurant and you order a salad with the dressing on the side, what are the odds that the waiter will remember and bring your salad with the dressing on the side?  I do this often and I think the odds are about 90% – that is, the waiter will correctly put the dressing on the side about 9 out of 10 times.  What happens when they don’t, and they bring the salad with the dressing already on it?  What do you do when that happens?

I know what I do – I eat the salad.  I will sometimes mutter under my breath, or make idle threats about reducing the tip, but I rarely draw attention to the fact that I did not get what I ordered and I am not 100% satisfied.  You see, I have been conditioned from an early age to be OK with that, to even expect that I will be disappointed and to minimize the importance of it.  This is not a healthy response for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it builds resentment that can surface later in undesired ways.

I don’t tell the Truth about my Satisfaction

The second big idea here is that I don’t tell the truth about my level of satisfaction. Just like with the salad, I suck it up.  Quietly.  I tell myself it is not really important, or not worth fighting about.

I am increasingly aware that I do better or worse with certain people or in certain situations.  With some people and in some situations, I have this large blindspot that I have come to think of as a form of ‘corporate denial’.  It is as though with certain people or situations, I completely toss out my expectations the idea that I could be personally satisfied.  I am unable – no, unwilling – to clearly see the truth in what is happening and orient to my own satisfaction.  A good example of this is with authority figures.

I am learning that this corporate denial has become so ingrained in me that I think of it as normal.  It is like the water in the fish tank that the fish cannot see or appreciate.

Being Nice

How does all this relate to being nice?  Well, generally I am very nice.  I am often ‘nice’ at the expense of being effective, as I can be in the restaurant example.  The problem is that while I may be nice on the surface, underneath the surface I am hurt and angry.

Let’s be clear though – being hurt and angry is what I have co-created.  It is also what I expect to happen.  The shift that I need to make is to be crystal clear about what I want and determined to have things the way that I want them.  I need to go for 100% satisfaction for myself.  This needs to be a top priority.

Spinner4 Initially, my need to go for 100% satisfaction may come at the expense of being nice.  Because I have been off balance for so long, the pendulum needs to swing the other way.  I need to have an extreme focus on my 100% satisfaction.

So for me to speak up that day and in an unkind way to challenge my team lead to do their job better, was actually a grow for me and a step in the right direction.  It wasn’t pretty, and I know that I can improve on that.  But I need to continue to get in there and be willing to be messy but insist that things be done the way that I want them done.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and reactions, in particular, if you pride yourself on being a nice guy ora nice girl.