Cobb’s Paradox

Cobb’s Paradox states, ‘We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?’  PMI has recently published its latest Pulse of the Profession survey which shows some improvements on the 2008 and 2006 results but not much. Nearly half the projects surveyed in 2010 still failed to meet time and cost targets.

However, the PMI survey did highlight a stark difference between high performing organisations with a better than 80% success rate, and low performing organisations with a greater than 40% fail rate. And, the survey also clearly showed the processes typically used by the high performing organisations (and ignored by low performing organisations) are straightforward to implement and use; they include:

  • Using standardised project management processes.
  • Establishing a process to mature project, program and portfolio management practices.
  • Using a process to increase project management competency.
  • Employing qualified project managers.

Most of these elements coalesce around an effective project management office (PMO). Simply by standardising project management processes, the survey shows an organisation can expect a 25% increase in project success.

None of this new is new, KPMG demonstrated exactly the same point in its 2002 and 2003 surveys, supported by similar findings by PwC in 2004 (see:

What’s worrying me is the large number of organisations whose middle and senior management are simply failing their stakeholders by not implementing these simple pragmatic steps. The question that should be asked is WHY?

The stakeholders whose rights are being ignored include the owners who have a right to expect efficient use of resources entrusted to the organisation and the people employed on the failed projects whose work life is made unnecessarily stressful.

As Deeming pointed out in the 1950s, quality is a management responsibility. Therefore, allowing poor quality project management processes to exist in an organisation is a management failure. To quote another mantra: quality is designed in not inspected in. Workers and project managers cannot be expected to retrofit quality into defective systems; systemic failures are a failure of management.

What makes the situation even more worrying is that the tools to develop a quality project management system are readily available. Models such as CMMI, P3M3 and PMI’s OPM3 maturity model has been around for years and are regularly updated.

PMI has recently moved to improve the availability and support for its OPM3 Self-Assessment Module (SAM). This basic assessment system is now sold and supported by organisations such as Mosaic that are qualified to deliver the full range of OPM3 services and help businesses achieve the best return on their investment (for more see: OGC have similar arrangements for P3M3 as does CMMI.

So, given the tools are available, the knowledge is available, and the value has been consistently demonstrated; why are organisations still prepared to squander $millions on failed projects rather than investing a fraction of that amount in simple systems that can significantly improve the value they deliver to their stakeholders?
I would be interested to know the answer.

4 Responses to Cobb’s Paradox

  1. […] Part of the answer is Cobbs Paradox (see the post) […]

  2. George B. says:

    The article is interesting, nevertheless I would add my two cents: despite all theories about stakeholders management, the most important seems to be without any doubt making all stakeholders aware to support the project and not viceversa – PM convincing the stakeholders ! Why that? Because many today’s companies are surviving because of projects running so why not making all stakeholders more responsible to support projects instead of giving to one person – the PM – the responsibility to talk nicely to stakeholders in order to achieve the project success. The project success is assured by all stakeholders not by PM, only. What a single person could do? Could one person “fight” against 20 stakeholders? Hardly!

    • stakeholdermanagement says:

      This sounds rather like blaming the victims.
      Certainly many technical PMs are very poor communicators (which is one of the values an effective PMO can contribute). But at the end of the day, the people paid to run the organisation are the executives and they are totally responsible for the standards they set and accept.

  3. Jed says:

    To improve project performance you need to
    1 improve project competency (training/hire good pms)

    2 use complete, integrated and optimized processes (methodologies etc)

    3 change the mindsets and belief systems of both the business and the PM community

    IN THE REVERSE ORDER – ie address no 3 first

    The reason why these ‘improvements’ have little to no effect is that they don’t address the belief systems of the business management and the PMs – which are often fallacious, inadequate and inappropriate.

    What and how you think about projects determines how you approach, manage and deliver projects.

    Cobb’s paradox is answered by addressing the root cause and not the symptoms.

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