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Project failure, unintended consequences and people

22 Dec 2010

| Author: Anthony Flack


Project failure, unintended consequences and people

Why do projects fail to run as successfully and logically as they should given all the time, effort and resources expended?

Project failure expressed as a financial or time-related overrun, or plain simple non-delivery, will be a familiar story to many of us. An often quoted view is that 70% of all changes fail at implementation. Management consultants utilise such facts to try and justify a better or alternative approach. If the 70% fact is scrutinised enough, some will describe the fact as a fallacy, as surely the change does not fail entirely? The change may not work as intended or put another way, may have unintended consequences.

The experience and impact of the unintended consequences (normally negative) can take many forms –functional, technical and of course on the users, the people. One of the most frequently cited reasons for unintended consequences are people. Failed change is often attributed to reasons such as ownership, buy-in, communication, engagement and resistance to the change.

Is it really appropriate to place people as the central cause of such failures? Or is it more likely to be a failing of the interaction between people and the complex, changing environment that some of the longer running projects exist in? People are often described as being highly adaptive, yet this is inconsistent with the view that people resist change; people understandably resist bad change, the previously experienced unintended consequences that lead to negative expectations the next time around.

The literature on change is vast and full of many different points of view. It strikes me that successful change needs to deal with the complex and changing project landscape in a fashion that optimises the experience of implementation with the end user. It is our challenge to find a path through this complexity.

So where does this leave us?

People are central to the cause and the prevention of unintended consequence. It is the responsibility of the leaders to deliver the success of the project.

I would pose that a better approach needs an architecture that couples the concepts of Agile (to unwind the length and complexity of change into manageable batches) with people who are enabled by the leaders of the change to understand it and succeed.

If you would like to discuss how IndigoBlue could support your organisation in implementing projects and change programmes successfully in this way, please get in touch

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Anthony Flack

Anthony has wide experience and success in the delivery of digital and business systems transformation. He has specialist knowledge in incremental planning, sustainable delivery through teams and the pragmatic application of Agile.


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