It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      October, 2014 Full Moon Edition      

Project Failure and Lava Flow - Painfully Predictable

For over 4 months lava has been flowing out of a vent from the volcano Kilauea in Hawaii.  There are several interesting parallels from this event to project management.

Risk is inherent with reward and we must accept it.  Why build a home near one of the worlds most active volcanoes?  As someone who lives in a state that can be a magnet for hurricanes, I am not being critical with this question.  Sometimes there is reward that is worthy of the risk.  But you must know and accept the risk for what it is.  A news crew was interviewing a family that was evacuating because of the lava flow and the mother calmly said "This is what can happen if you build a house near a volcano."  When we attempt a risky project with new technology, minimal resources, or an extremely aggressive schedule and project failure shows up, someone of authority should have accepted this risk of project failure ahead of time.  Sadly in a lot of circumstances the leader that appeared to have calmly accepted the risks in the beginning, angrily blames the project manager or others for the project failure when those risks materialized.  A high reward project can have high risk and we can't accept one without the other. (If your company is doing low reward projects that are high risk, make sure your resume' and Linkedin profile are up to date.)

Project failure is usually predictable way ahead of time.  The lava flow from this eruption is currently moving at 30 to 45 feet per hour.   If you get run over by this it is your own fault.  Project failure is rarely instant and those involved in the project usually know way ahead of time that it is destined for failure.  If you have every been a part of a project like this we usually know that it is our own (the organization's) fault because we created the pressure that caused the eruption resulting in the lava flow.  Even though they cannot predict a volcano eruption, project failure is very predictable because in most cases the factors that cause failure e.g., lack of accountability, poor requirements, poor change management, inadequate risk management, a fictitious schedule, etc. are in place creating the pressure that will cause an eruption.

Even though project failure is predictable it can be difficult to stop.  Since the lava flow is slow, stopping or diverting it would seem like something that could be done.  After all it is only moving 30 to 45 feet per hour.  However, the lava flow has momentum, and part of that momentum is heat, 2,000 degrees in the case of lava flow.  In the world of work, once a project is approved, or a course of action is chosen it has momentum. When high level leaders make it a priority and visible (heat) it has even more momentum.  The more we have invested in the project, even though it is sunk cost, the greater the momentum.  Recently during a speech I was citing an example of a company that had a very famous $2 billion dollar project failure.  They (the workforce) knew this project was going to fail at least a year and a half before the lava ran them over, but the leadership did not listen, there was too much momentum, too much invested, it was too important to the company, and its success was tied to their performance as leaders.

Project management is a group activity and therefore project failure is a group activity.  It pays to understand how groups can make bad decisions.  The book The Abilene Paradox does a great job of illustrating how a group of people can make bad decisions.

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