Why major programmes fail

After all, there is a battery of qualifications and accreditations, methods, review processes, best practice exchanges and skills pools. So why do over 65% of major programmes still fail?

A logician would point out that, with hundreds of ways to fail and only one way to succeed, failure is always going to be more likely than success. But that’s way too fatalistic, and simply not acceptable.

So, what needs to change?

At Pelicam, we believe that it’s not enough for the project management profession to get itself into shape – business as a whole also needs to learn how to handle change programmes. The overwhelming evidence is that programmes are often simply set up wrongly – and much of the blame lies with the business sponsor, and his/her advisors.

After all, who decides what the programme objectives are, and often agrees to (or demands) over-ambitious objectives? Who is responsible for the business change that accompanies (and is enabled by) the IT changes, and which is often not thought through properly? Who has to ensure that the new processes will work, and will deliver the claimed benefit? Who decides when to call a major programme manager in (and often leaves it too late)? Who decides which resources to dedicate to a programme, and which to retain in line management? And who needs to ensure that contractors’ contracts encourage behaviours that support the programme’s objectives?

All of these activities are the responsibility of the senior business sponsor, and failure in one or other of these areas is more often than not a basic cause of a failed programme. But where does the business sponsor acquire the necessary skills and experience to carry out these vital functions effectively?

There are, it must be said, signs of progress in the public sector. Training programs for business change sponsors exist, and a recent (November 2004) National Audit Report recommended (amongst other things) six questions that Accounting Officers should ask of their Boards concerning major IT-based change programmes. However, there is little in the report that talks to the practicalities of implementing all the recommendations, so deployment is inevitably proceeding slowly.

We have developed a call to action for leaders of public and private organisations:

Undertake continuing professional development in managing and sponsoring major change, particularly where IT is concerned. This requires a thought-out career progression which incorporates increasing exposure to, and responsibility for, major change.

Adopt a career management approach that allows the senior sponsor to stay in his/her position of programme responsibility long enough to be fully accountable from concept to implementation, without feeling that they are missing out on other career opportunities.

Select and appoint non-executive directors with specific skills in, and a track record of delivering, major change programmes.

Set up Programme Executive Boards, where the size and nature of change programmes require board-level involvement, and appoint non-executive directors and expert advisors.

Corporate governance regulations should require company reports to disclose major programme investments and their performance.

Many of the mechanisms needed to bring this about are already in place. Corporate Governance standards require clear criteria for the selection and appointment of appropriately skilled non-executive directors. Continuing professional development is increasingly provided and encouraged by organisations and professional bodies. Training courses for business sponsors (particularly in the public sector) are available.

What is needed to get the value from these tools is:-

The will to apply these approaches properly and consistently;

for professions, shareholders and regulators to hold organizations to account; and

support in putting these approaches in place.

So, IOD, CBI and professional bodies, start carrying the message into the Boardroom. There’s a big prize to be had – avoiding huge costs of failure, improving the reputation of the professions involved, and (perhaps most importantly) more investment by organisations, when they start to gain confidence in their ability to make these large investments deliver the benefits they promise.

In the meantime, the Profession continues to put project and programme managers through training and accreditation processes, in the belief that this will bring benefits. And so it does. But as long as programme mangers continue to be confronted with senior executives/civil servants/ministers ignoring or paying lip service to risk registers, or failing to take timely decisions over changes in organisation or processes, or disappearing halfway through a programme having committed to unachievable objectives, there will continue to be a huge gap between what management, shareholders, and the general public expect of major programmes, and what they actually deliver.