The Problem with Projects – They Don’t Deliver Value


Organisations are obsessed with projects.  Every year they invest millions of dollars into projects presumably with the expectation that these projects will create value for them and support them to achieve their goals and visions.  The problem is, projects seldom if ever actually deliver value and seldom if ever move organisations forward towards achieving their goals.  I’m not saying this based upon the well reported statistics on project failure.  You know the statistics, most commentators believe that  70% of all change initiatives fail.  And very often they fail on every dimension.  They cost more, take longer and fail to deliver on the benefits they were designed to deliver.  This is a major problem but it is not the fundamental issue.

The fundamental issue is that projects are the wrong structure to deliver sustainable value.  Why?  Projects are not designed to deliver value, they are designed to build capability.  Just look to the very definition of a project.  The Project Management Institute for example defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”.   

This is not new news and I have written about this in various guises before here and here.  The bottom line is that value is delivered not by a project that delivers a capability. Value is delivered through the consistent use of the capability over time.

This seems to be very human issue.  Who hasn’t gone on a diet or started a fitness program with a view to get fit, thin and “healthy”.  Often times it works.  We lose weight, we get fit, we complete that 10k road race, we look great for the big event.  Then, the goal achieved we slowly but surely slip back into our old ways.  Our fitness drops, the weight goes back on.  It was nice while it lasted but in the end nothing much has changed.  

This issue has really been brought home to me over the last three years.  The triggering event.  My doctor told me I had Type 2 diabetes.  Not a mild case, if such a thing exists, but a very severe case.  So severe that in his view there was no chance of reversing the effects.  At best it could be managed with medication, the effects delayed but eventually diabetes or it’s side effects would get me. And as I learned being “gotten” by diabetes is pretty nasty.  You can go blind and you are a prime candidate for gangrene and will need to have your limbs amputated.  The list of nasty things that can happen goes on and on.

As you can guess I was pretty taken aback by this and after a few weeks wallowing in self pity I began to look at what could be done.  I discovered that despite what my doctor told me there was actually quite a lot I could do but it required some pretty significant changes.  To cut a very long story short there were two key changes:

  • moving to a very low carbohydrate diet based largely on natural foods
  • as far as practically possible I have parked the car and I walk everywhere

Written like this it makes it look like a simple process.  It wasn’t.  It was a major personal project over the course of 6 to 9 months that involved a lot of research and personal experimentation.  I recorded information daily.  Blood sugar levels, distance walked, active minutes, calories, nutrition break down (carbs vs protein vs fats) and blood ketones and a personal assessment of energy levels to name a few.

The results.  After nine months I was medication free and had no signs, symptoms or health markers that indicated I was diabetic.  Despite what my doctor had predicted my Type 2 diabetes could be reversed.  As you can imagine this was huge for me but the point of the story is this. Having succeeded guess what happened?  Slowly over time my behaviours began to reverse.  I stopped recording everything I ate, I began to sneak different foods into my diet, just special occasions you understand.  What harm can a piece of birthday cake be anyway?  I began to walk less.  You guessed it, the symptoms and health markers of diabetes started to come back.

My project had stopped, I had raised the flag in victory and slowly over time things regressed back to normal.  Now, I am very motivated to not go back to where I was.  I am absolutely committed to being “diabetes free” but what I have learned is that if I want to stay “diabetic free”  I need to morph my diabetes control project into a new lifestyle – “this is the way I choose to live”.  And I am.

That said maintaining the lifestyle remains a daily challenge.  The pull to go back is great and I regress often.  Initially when I regressed I got angry at myself.  The problem is that when I get angry it just drives more bad choices.  I am learning to let it go and  simply to start again.  Simply starting again allows me to live “diabetes free”.  I have converted my diabetes project into a lifestyle.

And that’s the point.  If you want to change things ongoingly you need to change your project into a new way of doing things.  It is the new way of doing things that delivers the value not the project. This is true for all human endeavour including delivering value through IT.

If you want to deliver value through IT you need to change your thinking away from delivering initiative after initiative and begin to focus on a long term commitment to building technology fitness across your organisation.  Yes, you will still do projects but you will not deliver value to your organisation by doing one off projects no matter how large or transformational you think that project is.  It is capabilities in use that deliver value.  

Moving  from creating a capability to delivering the value through living capabilities daily is how you will deliver value.  Morphing your projects to be daily life is a critical step that most organisations miss in the value generation process.  Yes it’s hard but it is where value lies.  Too many organisations and senior executive teams however don’t  focus on capability in use.  It’s almost as if that day to day hard work is beneath them.  Instead, they go off and try and find the next strategic initiative, the next big thing that will save them and make them famous.  The problem is it doesn’t work.  Yeah, you might get some short term results but it doesn’t work in the medium to long term and that’s where you make a real difference for your business, for your customers, for yourself.


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