Why do so many projects fail, despite the availability of project management (PM) tools and methods? Professor Lavagnon Ika of the Telfer School says the working assumption that all projects are similar makes it possible to impose standard PM controls and processes. But this misconception may be doing real harm when we have to deal with projects with high levels of complexity and uncertainty that inevitably do not evolve exactly according to plan, adds Dr. Ika, who has taught PM over the past 13 years at the BCom and Master’s levels in both French and English. “The rigid application of project management methods consistently gets projects into trouble.”
Ika says one of the main takeaways from his research is that “hard aspects” of PM such as time and cost are emphasized at the expense of “soft aspects” like communication, motivation, project vision, context, and organizational strategy; “the reason we are not doing well in terms of the hard aspects is because we are not doing well on the soft aspects.” The soft issues which can’t be understood quantitatively are overlooked prior to the execution phase. "This is regrettable," he points out. "In fact, a poorly initiated project has a high probability to fail! For example, at the initiation phase there may only be a brief discussion of project goals. “When there are several stakeholders involved, the goals might differ and sometimes these goals are hidden or conflicting,” Ika adds. “Assuming that all these stakeholders are on the same wavelength is a common mistake.”
Researchers like Dr. Ika hope to change that situation. Valuable lessons can be learned by studying complex projects such as international development projects. They are “typically complex in that they are cross-cultural and involve many different industrial sectors,” says Ika, who is the guest editor of a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of African Business titled “Why do projects fail in Africa?”
In a 2012 article that caught the attention of PM practitioners, he described the reasons why many development projects in Africa fail. Project leads have a tendency to take “a one-size-fits-all approach” when applying PM methodologies, he says. Moreover, they have powerful incentives to show adherence to strong procedures and guidelines, which tended to override the need to properly manage the project and to take risks for success. There is also a lack of PM skill and capacity. Finally, the cultural context is downplayed – in particular, what it takes to obtain local commitment to a given project.
Dr. Ika says that two of the above issues – adopting a “one size fits all” approach and ignoring the role of cultural issues in PM – plague other types of projects, too. “The bodies of knowledge in project management lead you to believe that all projects follow the same pattern but real life is not so linear. Project management professionals have to learn a lot about the complexity and uncertainty of the projects they take on, and at the same time they need to be aware of the environment in which they are working.
“If you can get practitioners to think about these issues that have not been much emphasized in the literature, you have accomplished part of your role as a researcher.”