Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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Blind Optimism is Killing Projects… But Not As Much As Apathy

Whenever I travel, I like to read up on good and bad case studies of projects and culture from around the world to be able to weave them into my programs, speeches and blogs. Presenting the observations from one country alone creates a myopic view and isn’t always representative of the way the world does things. And yet...when it comes to research on projects, the news is nearly always bad.

Now, I get that the world loves bad news more than it does good. This is what sells newspapers and creates clickable content. Ask yourself, are you more likely to click on a headline that says ‘Major project fails catastrophically!’ or ‘Project succeeds, everyone happy!’? I personally would click on the latter first, because it’d be such a surprise to read!

Organisations have to get better at telling the good news stories, which will be made so much easier if they create the conditions for them in the first place.

I was working with a client in Los Angeles recently and – as part of my preparation – came across the California high speed rail link project, the state’s plan to connect LA with San Francisco with a journey time of 2 hours and 40 minutes. It was approved in 2008 and a budget of $33bn was initially requested to complete. It is now expected to cost $79.1bn, with some estimates suggesting that it may cost $100bn, almost three times as much as was originally requested. It is also likely to be delivered 13 years late.

California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom earlier this year admitted that the project was doomed, saying ‘Let’s be real, the project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.’ And yet, still it continues.

Why? Because of the myth of sunk cost. The view that because billions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent adding more to finish it will make everything right. It won’t and the general public - only 52% of whom voted for it in the first place - will be left to pick up the bill.

But of course what killed this project (and so many before and after it) is blind optimism and poorly performing people. Anyone who's ever been involved in any project of this scale, knows that the final budget - and validation of whether it will deliver the expected value - is only possible once detailed planning has been completed. And then, only through establishing a team of skilled, committed and disciplined individuals who have set the conditions where they can hold each other to account, can it be done.  

The two questions that should be asked of every project are:

  1. Is there continued justification for doing this?

  2. Do we have the right calibre of people to ensure that we achieve what’s expected?

If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, then you stop the project, no questions. You don’t ‘pause’ or ‘put it on hold’, as they are just mechanisms for consultants to come in and tell management what they want to hear and create statements of work to keep them in business.

That organisations continue to devalue the profession that exists to help it achieve its goals is a never-ending source of frustration for those of us who want to see major projects succeed.

I’ve met with organisations this year who have a capital budget of over $50m dollars to deliver and yet can’t get $50k (0.1%) to provide their people with the skills to be successful, resorting instead to isolated certification programs, process redesign (often called ‘new ways of working’) and throwing external people at projects that have already missed their targets.

The same people are also told by risk averse HR departments and managers that they’re not able to manage poor performers out of the business because it’s ‘too hard’. Maybe if they invested in giving their people the leadership and team-building skills to be able to do so, it would make it easier?

Ask yourself, when it comes to providing skills across the organisation on how to sponsor and lead projects successfully, which route does your organisation take from the list below?

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A blindly optimistic organisation with no track record of continuous successful project delivery will almost always take the approach on the left. Believing that even though they failed before, this time will be different.

Whilst successful organisations will almost always take the approach on the right. Never resting on their laurels and searching for better ways (and people) to get things delivered in line with expectations.

I wonder when enough will be enough with regards to project failure?

I met with a major media news group in advance of my book being published to try and get some airtime this year to raise awareness about the importance of getting projects right and what they should expect from people leading them.

I talked about the fact that there are too many highly paid people wasting millions of dollars of public and shareholder money and not being held account. That there are some great people out there looking for an investment in their futures from their employers to provide them with the skills (not certificates or consultants) to help them be successful. And that managers have to get tougher with people who weren’t performing.

The response of the person was short: ‘I just don’t think people care enough about projects to make it newsworthy.’ Not until it goes wrong of course. Then, for the briefest moment of time, everyone cares… but not enough to create any lasting change.

Blind optimism is killing projects, but not as much as apathy for the factors that could help them to be successful.