To The Lighthouse – Why Projects Frequently Sink

First appeared in ‘Training Journal’ (U.K.)


“ If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Strategic change is difficult. No secret there. Managing long term projects is difficult. Recent reports indicate that costs for the 2012 Olympic Project is already £1 billion over the original bid budget. Looking at the statistics there are varying estimates of the percentage of projects that fail. The general feeling for projects that failed last year is between 60 and 80 %. A typical analysis of IT project failure appeared in The Guardian in November last year;

“This year, the world’s IT expenditure is projected at $1,700bn (£975bn). About one-third of projects fail completely and another third have complicated problems. Those that finish are likely to be completed several months or years late, on average 180% over budget. These figures do not include hush-hush corporate projects or projects started at home.” – Ed Hasted

The Public Sector seems to have identified a key reason;

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee , said in the report Achieving Value for Money in the Delivery of Public Services (November 2005)

” Basic errors are repeated time and again.”

Is it this simple? Well in some ways I believe it is. From past experiences of projects most participants – managers, project managers, IT personnel, staff know that the ride will be rough at times. They have been on this journey before, often on a number of occasions and as the figures indicate have failed 2/3 of the time. Yet, whatever process is used, if any, at the end of a project it seems to make little difference the next time around.

In 1998 the CEO of Polaroid Gary Dicamillo said “Some people think photography is going to go away as everything in our industry becomes digitised. But I disagree. I think analogue photography will endure.” Project after project failed to recognise the importance of digital cameras. Three years later they filed for bankruptcy with nearly $1 billion in debts.

The next venture starts with a clean sheet and a renewed optimism that this time things will be different. This time the project will take place in that parallel universe where key staff never get pregnant, project managers don’t find another post in another Organisation and resources are always available when and where they should be.

There have been some spectacular failures in the past few years;

For instance the London Ambulance Service had their operations virtually stopped for 36 hours in October 1992. It is estimated to have cost up to 30 people their lives. The main reason cited was the failure of the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) software. A major factor behind the success or failure of this software was an assumption made on the part of the project team. The assumption was that the system would have near perfect information on the location and status of the London Ambulance Service vehicles available at all times. This didn’t happen and one of the worse problems included response times to emergency calls of up to 11 hours.

Paris Euro Disney was a financial disaster. The project itself was initially costed at $2.25 billion and finally cost $4 billion. Executives seemed to make a number of wrong assumptions based on a poor grasp of the cultural differences. For instance in the United States the customers stayed longer (4 days), didn’t mind that there was no alcohol on sale and were willing to pay higher prices to stay at the Disney Hotels. These, and other, factors led to a downward spiral and excessive spending to ‘buy themselves’ out of trouble.

So whilst most projects may not make the list of grand failures there are lessons that can be learnt.

One key element in the sinking of projects is the internal momentum they build. At a certain point the project seems to take on a life of its own and the reason for the project existing seems to become almost secondary. It turns into some huge ocean liner that seems to be sailing itself and is impossible to turn around.

The London School of Economics’ Taurus project started in 1982 and was abandoned after 11 years having cost the City of London £800 million – It’s original budget was £6 million.

A member of the Taurus monitoring group described how this felt at the time in an interview in 1994;

“It is easy to look back and say, “Why didn’t you see it all the time?” Well, most disasters look obvious in hindsight. When you are in the middle of it and your objective is to get to the end you take each issue and you try to deal with it, and then another issue and you try to deal with it and another issue and you try to deal with it. It is only the cumulative of the issues that you finally say, “When is this going to end?”


Consider a different approach. Rather than the super luxurious, out-of-control, technically programmed, inhuman ocean liner imagine the project as a sailing boat. Go back to basics. The project shouldn’t take control. The people working on the project should be the navigators. There’s a simple three step approach that can help gain control of projects;

Step 1 – Where are you now?

“It is obvious that the navigator must know the ship’s position before being able to direct the vessel to another position or in another direction.” – Jim Sexton (

The first action with any project is incredibly obvious. You need to establish exactly where you are. This sounds so easy and obvious that often this is ignored. The consequences of ignoring this stage can be dramatic.

For instance The Home Office’s £2500 million project to establish a state-of-the-art police radio network was designed to allow officers on the beat to access criminal records from mobile terminals. However the project hadn’t recognised that the cost to individual local police authorities would ensure it would never work.

This is an aspect that is neglected or assumptions made, e.g. Paris Euro Disney’s cultural assumptions. People assume they know where they are and become so excited charging after the vision that they overlook important details. After all it’s far sexier, more exciting talking about your hopes and aspirations for the future rather than working out exactly were you are now. This is vital I’m afraid. In sailing terminology it equates to getting your bearings and checking what equipment you have before you start the journey. Where exactly are you in terms of skills, resource, etc? Who’s in charge? What are their strengths, weaknesses, etc? What assumptions are you making?

Step 2 – Where Are You Going?

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.” Seneca

The second action needed to take is to take is determine exactly where you’re going. This is your vision. This should be inspirational. You need to take your people with you. Above all the vision must be defined clearly. People need to see the end product, what it will look like and what’s in it for them. As a leader this is probably your number one job. Leaders lead by having compelling visions. There’s a tale (probably apocryphal) of John F Kennedy walking around the NASA building in 1968 asking a toilet cleaner at NASA what he was doing. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade”. Everyone involved in the Apollo project knew where they were going and their role. They didn’t need screen savers with the mission statement. They were involved.

In terms of the sea journey the vision is the lighthouse shining out in the distance. This is your target. This is where you take your bearings from.

O.K. I know you wouldn’t actually sail toward a lighthouse. I’m fairly sure sailors make a point of not getting too near to lighthouses. However imagine it’s a safe lighthouse, a beacon if you like.

Step 3 – How Will You Get There?

“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.” Chinese proverb

Now imagine that the implementation process is that journey. You know exactly where you are and you know exactly where you’re going. You have to navigate the journey. You’re not going to get to your lighthouse in a straight line. There are a number of elements that will get in the way include wind, waves, current, rocks, sharks, pirates, etc… Choose your own symbolic enemies. So how would you plan on reaching your destination? Well, in a way you can’t. You can’t predict with any certainty what will happen to the wind, waves and weather in six months time. What you can do is plan the first few steps as accurately as you can. Then at a certain point you would re-assess your position and plan your next few moves. Then reassess and replan. This is the only sensible approach. The danger of not doing this is obvious. For instance, The Taurus project seemed to develop a life of its own. The project was way off course yet it kept going in the same direction. In an extract from a report on the project;

“The decision makers concentrated on solving the problems at the expense of questioning the existence of so many problems, diligently bashing one peg down only to see another fly up, no closer to the end. Everyone was so intent on delivering Taurus that the question of whether Taurus was still worth delivering was largely eclipsed.”

What happens with most projects is that ‘someone’ expects the project to be planned out in the most minute detail for each day of the 2,3,4 years it takes to complete. This has to be carried out before the journey even begins. There will be stages of course built in, but each is dependant on the preceding one, which hasn’t been completed yet. Finances and other resources are all controlled at the beginning on the best guess. These guesses at resources are inevitably going to be wrong. How can you possibly know how many people will be needed to run an IT project 5 years from now given the rate of change in that particular field? You can’t. In other areas, people will leave, new people will arrive, and resources will not turn up, or turn up early, late, and damaged. Everyone knows this yet we still go along with it and throw in a few ‘contingency plans’, ‘risk analysis diagrams’ to make us feel better.

I’m not saying that there’s no value in project management or even in breaking down long term objectives. You need to know exactly where you are going and it helps if you can generate some quick wins. These markers along the way can be motivational as it sends the message that things are happening and the project is on track. There needs to be more of an awareness however that these targets will continually change. If these targets are too rigid (devised on day one) at some point they won’t be met. Then it will be too easy for the cynics involved to start pointing fingers and saying, “I told you this wouldn’t work. Two months into a six year plan and we’re already over-budget.”

They will change. In sailing terms if you are blow off course you need to reassess and set out a different direction to the end point. I have a feeling that a number of projects go astray and attempt to sail to the next marker rather than the lighthouse. This uses additional resources and seems that the only benefit is to put a tick in the appropriate box in the project implementation folder. It doesn’t make any sense.

In 1985 there was the great Coca-Cola disaster. Coca-Cola was determined to beat Pepsi who had run the highly successful “Pepsi Challenge” campaign and brought Pepsi to within 5% of Coca-Cola’s share. Coca-Cola panicked, dropped the product that had kept them in business for practically a century and launched New Coke. Although most of this process was a disaster they did have the sense and ability to make a complete U-turn in just 78 days. They’re still in business.


“We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails”- Bertha Calloway

Leaders and managers who have to implement these changes are setting themselves up for a hiding to nothing using the methods they’ve always used. It must be time for a reality check. The important aspects are;

1. Spend time finding out exactly where you are starting from.

2. Have a clear and compelling image of where you and the Organisation are going. The people involved must buy into this and be motivated to achieving it. If they’re not it really is a waste of time.

3. Plan the journey as it happens. You should have a sense of where you’re going but you need to be almost continually changing direction as factors change. Plan and communicate the process in a structured, realistic approach – a few steps at a time, reassess, some more steps, reassess and so on.


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