Four reasons people like failing projects

I am personally from the “kill projects early and often” school of program management. I like to see project ideas come up, go though preliminary investigation, then die a deserved death before they drag dozens or hundreds of people down a primrose path to hell. Unfortunately, very few organizations have the fortitude to slaughter projects indiscriminately once they move into the “deployment” stage. Too many people have staked too much, politically and otherwise, on the project's success.

Unfortunately that stake does not automatically make the project a success. Nor does successful development, deployment, or even follow-through. It's possible to work on a project where some or all of the traditional “areas of interest” execute flawlessly, yet the actual unique product produced by the project fails to meet any real business need. The project manager is unfortunately uniquely situated to discover this kind of information. The question he faces is relatively simple: what will he do about it?

We talk about project popularity as if it were an irrational response to the wondrous power of project communications. Somehow “group think” takes over and people press forward with ideas which seem completely inane in retrospect. People don't notice, or gloss over, the problems when they occur.

This is not actually the case. People are inherently rationalizing, yes, but they also generally know what's going on around them. Everyone knows that the failing project is, in fact, failing. However they also have some kind of personal stake in riding the project as far down as they possibly can. These stakes tend to fall into one of three categories:

1) Professional development -- Corporations give neutral references these days, so anyone can put a project on their resume even if it didn't do very well. I generally don't, but I know plenty of people who surf from project to project, picking up “valuable experience” along the way. 2) Stability -- Never underestimate the human need to build and maintain a stable social world. People will convince themselves of just about anything, and put-up with worse, to avoid a change. Just as importantly, people living in a risky economic environment (say one with a skyrocketing rate of home foreclosures) will fight to preserve whatever situation pays them for as long as possible. 3) Enjoyment -- It may come as a shock, but a complete failure of a project still has a lot of opportunities for people to do their jobs, and do them well. Individuals can work hard, play hard, and have a good time even when the efforts of the team as a whole fail. 4) The Rush – A failing project generates a heck of a lot of drama. Crises, meetings, and opportunities for heroic endeavor abound as people try to either meet their deadlines or resolve minor problems which grew into mountains. For some people these moments are the only ones they can point to when they really feel alive.

When a project manager finds himself on a failing popular project, before he starts waving his arms and shouting the sky is falling, he should weigh exactly what's going on. Odds are good that people, perhaps many of them, derive a great deal of immediate and future benefit from this failure. That the soul-less, faceless corporation will suffer harm probably doesn't enter into their calculations at all.