Preparing for failure

Mitigating project failure conditions

It often occurs to me that a fair number of project managers are inordinately optimistic when it comes to managing the delivery of a project. Given the number of high-profile failures reported in the media, and their own experience, you’d think that we would have learnt to temper our optimism with a healthy dose of realism. Seems not.

I was watching the BBC Science Club series and they were talking about why headphone cables get tangled. To sum up, there are many more states where the headphones can be tangled. It’s a non-isolated system so tangling is considered the higher entropy state, and so, your cables get tangled. That’s a good way of looking at it; there are more ways that a project can fail than it can succeed; so the natural tendency will be for the project to head towards failure.

As a thought experiment, think of all the states where your project will be considered a success, and then think of all the states where your project can be considered a failure. My bet is that there are many more states where the project is going to be considered a failure. If all those outcomes have an equal probability, then we’re in a situation where your project is probably going to fail.

All of that is pretty depressing, but I’m not advocating that you give up and go live on the beach instead (nice though that would be). We just have to learn how to make the failure conditions less probable and increase the likelihood of success.

More on some of the techniques we use another day.

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