The Project That Couldn’t Fail

Trite management sayings

Managers love clichés. They pick them up as they gain experience and seniority. The most popular are those that prove their superiority and make others feel small.

A couple of my personal favourite statements of the obvious are: “Fail to plan and plan to fail” and “Poor Planning leads to P### Poor Performance”. I will leave it to your imagination what the 3rd P stands for.

How trite can you get?

Even the most junior management trainee knows that if you have a big project the way to succeed is to plan it out. First define your goal and identify the obstacles. Then develop plans and approaches to overcome them. In all walks of life if you want funding for your venture you need a well though through plan. Otherwise nobody will take you seriously.

The ballistic model

David Lane of the Henley Business School calls this the “ballistic model of success”

  1. Define the target
  2. Design a rifle
  3. Build the rifle
  4. Load the rifle
  5. Calculate the trajectory allowing for distance, gravity and wind speed
  6. Fire, with sniper like precision

That is how we should run projects. Clear thinking and precise planning lead to success.

Off target

Unfortunately it isn’t that straightforward. Dr Lane goes on to point out a couple of flaws with the ballistic method.

1. Complexity

There is always be something that we missed or that blind sides us.

Take the development of the Airbus A380, the worlds largest passenger airliner. It is estimated that the project overspent by €15bn.

The plane was conceived to challenge Boeing’s monopoly of the large jet market using Airbus’ network of 16 plants across 4 countries. When the component parts were delivered for final assembly in Toulouse, technicians discovered that the “pre-stuffed” wiring looms were a few centimetres too short to connect with each other. That doesn’t sound too bad until you learn that each wiring loom has more than 100,000 wires and is 530km long.

The wires didn’t quite reach because the two design teams used different CAD software.

Even the most detailed and well thought through plans will be wrong.

2. Speed

By the time you have planned, discussed, costed, replanned, redesigned and implemented your plan the world will have moved on.

Lorenzo was the NHS project to digitise all patient health records so they were easily accessible. It started in 2002 and was abandoned in 2011 after an investment of £10bn. £200 for every person in the country.

In 2011 we were all using Google to find the information we needed.  Lorenzo was a worthy idea that would be implemented very differently today.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy ~ Helmuth von Moltke

An alternative approach

Instead of thinking of projects as bullets think of them as guided missiles. Point your resources in the right general direction and shoot. Once the rocket is launched you will see where it is going and change direction as events unfold.

On first glance, this appears to be a much more sensible approach.

Human nature gets in the way

But it isn’t that easy. No self-respecting executive is going to back a project that hasn’t had all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. So no self-respecting programme manager is going to present one. Can you imagine the conversation in the boardroom?

What do you mean you will “SEE HOW THINGS UNFOLD”?

The ballistic method is hard-wired into our psyches.

Projects that can’t be seen to fail

The outcome of all this positioning is programmes with detailed plans, cost benefit analyses and risk mitigation approaches. These plans are backed by senior executives who have put their full conviction and weight behind them. They absolutely positively cannot afford to let them fail. Yet the statistics show that they do.

If you think the behaviour leading up to these projects is dysfunctional wait until they start to go off the rails…

It will be interesting to see how the UK’s rush to the exit door of the European Union plays through. There is more than one supercharged ego hitched to that particular wagon.

The solution

Is to plan to fail.  Once you realise that there is no way that all that thinking and planning can give you the outcome you are searching for you will make sure that you have the resources and space in place to adapt as you go.

You are going to need them anyway.

Or is it too much for your organisational ego to admit that it can get things wrong?

When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.
What do you do, sir? ~ John Maynard Keynes

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Images by David Hawk and Dilbert

Read another opinion

David Lane described the “ballistic model” in Matthew Syed’s fascinating book Black Box Thinking


  1. James, love it! Planning to fail is something we do when we conduct “pre-mortem” meetings, so we can prepare for any potential risks, pitfalls, failures, and more. Don’t think we can plan for all of them, but it’s a good place to start.

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