SUMMARY OF THE SITE “PATHOLOGICAL PROJECTS”
This page consists of:
The pathological project : an english summary of the original site
The website “pathological projects” (les projets pathologiques), created in March 2001, takes a close look at the symptoms and causes of the problems often encountered in projects management. Our analysis tries to show that in certain cases the causes may be structural, even cultural, and intrinsic to the organisation.
Pathological projects and the manner in which an organisation deals with them can be a good indicator of a company’s health and development potentials.
The term “pathological project” refers to projects initiated with well established deadlines and planning, but giving disappointing results together with major budget and deadline overruns.
Moreover should they ever achieve acceptable results, they will be presented as outstanding successes, while carefully hiding that a better result could have been obtained at a lesser cost and in less time.
What is special about a pathological project is that it is generally not considered as a failed project: in fact a good pathological project thrives in a culture of denial and disguised failures.
Why this site?
In the world of project management, various websites and books describe in detail best practices and processes success in projects. Analysis on failures and their causes are much less numerous especially as concerns the European experience. Our site analyses cases, rare as they are, in which methodologies, best practices and received advice, are of no use, because the organisation has a cultural resistance to their application. Presentation
Symptoms of pathological projects
It is difficult to make a list in an ordered fashion of all the manifestations of a pathological project because its development is characterized by chaos and disorder. We can however identify the following features:
A marked disinterest on the part of the final users: the site analyzes the often unspoken reasons for this indifference. Symptoms analysis
A series of unorganised tasks resulting in a disappointing result: the website describes how the budget and planning of a pathological project are established in a dictated and non negotiated manner, even before knowing what has to be done. Symptoms analysis
Major time and budget overruns: to disguise bad results, the direct consequence of the above, the organisation is forced to engage increased resources and further expenditure beyond what was initially planned (“The effort required to correct course increases geometrically with time”. Golub's Law of Computerdom #3). Symptoms analysis
Internal control silence: a typical feature of pathological projects is the silence from those control functions that are supposed to detect problems and propose solutions (auditors, inspectors, controllers…). One of the reasons for this “law of silence” is the fear to question leaders who have agreed to the projects initial core conditions (budget, planning and resources), i.e the company’s Management. Insofar as these control functions are chosen, rewarded, paid or removed by company managers and not by an external independent body, they find themselves inevitably dependent on these same company managers. In these conditions to avoid any danger of having their very existence questioned, these control functions are tempted to amass compromising information for the sole objective of self-preservation. Symptoms analysis
The sharing of responsibilities: the lack of visibility that surrounds a pathological project and the self-willed lethargy on the part of the control functions allows a project leader “experienced in pathological projects” to implement a whole series of techniques to organise his irresponsibility. We describe three of these techniques in the site: (1) scapegoat, (2) creative accounting (to hide budget overruns) and (3) “globalisation” (i.e: using supposed increased scope and terms of reference to get approval for increased spending on the project). Symptoms analysis
Let us now explain the causes of these above symptoms by looking more carefully at the very beginning of the project i.e.: the terms of reference.
Three causes of pathological projects
The site describes three causes, but this should not be taken as an exhaustive list of all possible causes.
The risk aversion and general fear of responsibility rampant among executive management
Before a project can be launched it must beforehand be approved by all manner of management committee who will validate and approve the conditions and the objectives. These executive managers try to avoid taking unnecessary risks and believe that a project isn’t worth being undertaken if it will cost “too much” or go on for “too long”. In pathological organisations, Executive management’s underlying motivation is its own self preservation ; this in turn pushes them into favouring the more sure short term over the more risky long term. If he wants his project approved, a project manager will be forced to be less than truthful and present the project costs and planning in whatever way that will get approval. We could imagine a project manager lying to his superiors in order to correctly manage a project. This is pure speculation and nothing leads us to believe that in pathological organisations the project manager can do any better than to mislead his team and to impose upon them the same unrealistic conditions and deadlines that were needed to get approval for the project. Once started there is no turning back and it’s only a matter of time till you will see the dysfunctions described in the chapter. Symptoms of the pathological project.
An environment conducive to lax management
The site describes how certain activities are less susceptible to good project management. We observe examples of real life pathological organisations considering it a waste of time and money to control and follow up projects, using measurements and statistics.
Resistance to change.
Consequences of pathological projects on an organisation
There are two possible ways to tackle pathological projects:
1) Make the necessary changes that will ensure good management of the projects (eg, rigorous measuring and tracking of project costs and deadlines) ;
2) Smokescreen and distraction: This takes two basic forms:
Of course, problems do not disappear and sooner or later executive management becomes more critical and less understanding of their staff and is less likely to have great faith in any of their “new ideas”, forcing project managers to tell executive management whatever they want to hear, for example reduced budgets and tighter deadlines. However, the outside world continues to change and move forward and executive management feels compelled to respond despite their natural tendency to avoid risk. It is in these difficult times that they often turn to a classic feature of many pathological processes, the new voice, the new idea, someone or something that will relieve them of their responsibilities the time it takes to come out the other end of the tunnel. This tendency of risk adverse leaders to avoid their own responsibilities in period of crisis can also explain certain other phenomena such as the apparition of “führers” who were considered in their time to be “the man of the moment”, the man with all the answers. Other examples of new voices or new ideas are:
“ Exeunt omnes” - all things have an end: the decline and fall of an organisation
What can we say about an organisation whose pathological projects are
forever increasing and yet makes no effort to take the necessary control
and corrective actions?
POSTSCRIPTUMS TO THE SITE
The misinterpretation of Parkinson’s Law (“Work expands
to fill the time available for its completion”).
N°2: Pseudo rigour and its ravages.
N°3: Mary Stuart by Stefan Zweig - Variations on the theme of
N°4: Visitors comments received and our replies.
N°5: Control functions in pathological organisations
N°6: From pathological projects to pathological society
N°7: A theory of medieval enterprises
Addendum to the pathological projects
An addendum to the initial site, written to explain the absence of statistics on projects in Europe. Click here