Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Makes a Project Succeed? The Project or the Management?

What is it that makes a project succeed? Is it the methodologies, the risk analysis, the reporting, the communications ability and talents of the managers or is it the project? This question came up as a result of a discussion about a story that Richard Feynman told, explaining what he called Cargo Cult Science. The story goes as follows:

In the South Seas, there is a cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas - he's the controller - and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

How many project are really important or are there times we're waiting for planes to land?

Photo Credit: escapista


Josh said...

Or, how many projects fail because we go through the motions without any understanding or care for why we are doing it?

When status reports are "because we have to" or "just because the customer wants it", they can be useless although they look like the real thing to the untrained eye.

Unless the activity is driven from an understanding of its root cause and value, the planes don't land.

Thought-provoking post Andrew, since I'm a fan of physics and Feynman is a hero to me, you get +1 in my book.

Josh Nankivel

Andrew Meyer said...


I couldn't agree with you more. Whenever one finds themselves going through the motions, it's a sign of trouble. There maybe reasons something has to be done, but they ought to be compelling.



Josh said...

Plus, even if doing something that must be done, there is a spectrum of value to be gained, which is largely dependent on the commitment to quality and focus on the value-add.

To my mind, successful projects happen when the project manager aligns his/her activity and incentives with the success of the project, and is able to do the same for the team. Failures happen when too many contributors have something else as their primary goal...political, personal, or otherwise.

Josh Nankivel