Why Good Projects Fail Anyway

JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director
Abstract and review
Nadim F. Matta and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Harvard Business Review, September 2003, pp. 109-114.

As many of us already know from experience, big projects fail, despite good intentions and lots of traditional project management record keeping. Matta and Ashkenas recommend a technique they call rapid-results initiatives to stave off the seemingly inevitable disappointments and disasters.

Rapid-results initiatives are mini-projects injected into the stream of a large project. Each initiative has a specially assigned team that is asked to achieve a specific result in miniature and do so quickly. These small, challenging projects help teams uncover the missing pieces that plague larger efforts: “Your project contained all the necessary ingredients for success, except when you learned too late that the key subject-matter experts never bought-in to the new processes.”

When we set up the typical big project, we assign teams to a variety of tasks that have to be performed in parallel. One team might work on a new process for the information developers so that they can be more responsive to customer needs. Another team may be assigned the development of an information model. Yet, another team may be working on defining the tools requirements. Each of these efforts proceeds on a well-established time line with carefully defined tasks. More often then not, in the case of big projects, each activity requires a lot of time to accomplish. The entire development effort may take months or even years.

The risk that such well-designed activities will lead to failure is great. Matta and Ashkenas report that 2 out of 3 large projects will fail. The problem occurs in the “white space” between the horizontal activities. For the teams working on their own part of the larger project, the missing pieces are almost impossible to detect. Only late in the project life cycle do team members realize that a critical ingredient has been missed. By that time, it may be too late to repair the damage.

The solution is rapid-results initiatives. Small teams are assigned a specific, challenging goal and given 100 days to succeed. The teams undertake an entire project in which the goal is related to and will contribute to an understanding of the goals of the larger initiative. They take a horizontal slice of the problem and execute in whatever way they see fit. Along the way, they often discover the missing integration pieces.

To be successful, rapid-results initiatives must by results oriented (reduce translation costs by 50 percent by increasing reuse), vertical (take a slice of all the horizontal activities and test them all, including process, content model, and rudimentary tools), and fast (finish in 100 days, which creates a challenge but ensures that the initiative isn’t large enough to create major damage if it fails).

In the HBR article, the authors site a World Bank initiative to improve the productivity of small Nicaraguan farmers by 30 percent over 16 years. It’s difficult to see results in a 16-year project involving 120,000 farmers. To test the concept, five rapid-results teams were challenged—one had to find a way to increase daily milk production from 600 to 1,600 gallons among 60 farmers in 120 days. To their surprise, they found the problem was not producing the milk but producing milk that was clean enough so meet the hygiene requirements of the distributor. The need for new cleanliness techniques and training was not even on the radar screen of the horizontal team working on training programs.

Big projects put a lot of pressure on all the various team members, but the full burden of success is on the managers. If the project doesn’t come together, it’s the managers, not the individual team members, who are judged responsible for the failure. The team members were just following through dutifully on their assignments.

By assigning rapid-results initiatives, responsibility shifts to the small teams. They are given a measurable goal and have to achieve it in record time. Despite the challenge, we’ve noted that most teams are eager to prove themselves and take on the responsibilities with enthusiasm.

Using rapid-results initiatives does not substitute for the horizontal, longterm planning. That work continues. The initiatives simply demonstrate that the new ideas can be successful, despite potential problems. They also prove to the naysayers that the new ideas are not likely to go away.