Danger: Failing to assess the costs of failure

Joanne Flinn

Danger: Failing to assess the costs of failure

December 21, 2012

Projects are investments, yet are they assessed as such? A single project is either performing or not. It adds value to the portfolio or not. The failure to assess the costs of failure represents a major opportunity for business improvement.

Alex Boozier of [the UK’s] Oxford University, whose research was published Harvard Business Review last year, showed that one in six IT projects cost two to four times what is expected, and that nearly half of such projects are underfunded.

[T]hese facts show a downward spiral. One project underperforms, taking funds and energy from the next project. Performance declines.

A single failing project costs time, money, people and opportunity. If the project is big, it can wipe out the benefits of hundreds of smaller successful projects. It’s the maths of portfolio returns on investments.

As a financially inclined person, I calculated the project portfolio return using a yield formula using several benchmark project portfolios. The numbers shocked: 27.5% was written off.

I had a certified public accountant friend check. He said “Yes, that’s the data, that’s the result.” As a human and a business owner/executive, that's worrying.

Let’s keep it simple: these benchmarks are predictive: a $1,000,000 project is very likely to have a budget overrun of $275,000. This likely budget overrun (aka ‘incremental budget’) gets proportionally bigger as projects get bigger. This changes a business case. If a project does not have what it needs to deliver, it’s even more likely to fail.

It’s predictable, with 20 years of data.

My key points on business case, projects and investment:
• Business cases need to consider this risk profile; two to four times over budget is materially dangerous for big ticket projects in most businesses
• Success or failure is predictable upfront
• Early warning systems can identify what projects (and budget) are at risk, and what to do.

Looks like it’s time for a check-up of projects, upfront.

Joanne Flinn is a diagnostician of project failure and it’s cure, the author of “The Success Healthcheck for IT Projects” (Wiley 2010). Reach her at www.sheltonconsulting.com


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Joanne Flinn


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