Silence - the root cause of project failure

Oct 11 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Failing to discuss five key issues before embarking on a new business initiative, project or programme almost guarantees that it will end in failure.

New research carried out by training company VitalSmarts and professional services firm, The Concours Group, has uncovered five crucial issues –what they term 'crucial conversations' - that have an enormous impact on whether high-stakes business initiatives succeed or fail.

The study, "Silence Fails: The Five Crucial Conversations for Flawless Execution", suggests that when even one of these crucial conversations fails, a silent crisis plays out in a deceptively simple dynamic that results in initiatives failing 85 per cent of the time.

The result of this failure sees projects going over budget, missing deadlines and failing to meet quality and functionality specs. Team morale is inevitably damaged in the process.

But when these conversations succeed, the survey of more than 1,000 executives and project managers across 40 companies found that the failure rate is reduced by 50 to 70 percent.

In addition to having a financial impact, these failures can also cost careers. In 2005, CEO turnover doubled from the previous year. Almost to two-thirds of all major companies have replaced their CEOs within the last five years.

These five problems are far more common than anyone realised

Previous studies have suggested that failing to deliver on critical initiatives is one of the primary reasons for this rate of CEO churn. In other words, CEOs' shortcomings are less about strategy and decision-making than about their ability to execute their plans.

"The research showed that these five problems are far more common than anyone realised, and once identified, much harder to solve than most senior managers anticipate," said Joseph Grenny, VitalSmarts president.

"More importantly, the way in which everyone from senior leaders to project participants discusses even one of these issues predicts with amazing accuracy whether or not the project is doomed.

"This kind of litmus test can save companies literally billions of dollars in the cost of major delays, cost overruns or cancellations. It can also save top executives their jobs."

What's more, while some nine out of 10 business leaders face these five issues routinely but only rarely are they able to get their concerns heard and understood.

So what are the five undiscussable issues that do so much damage?

The first and most fundamental is fact-free planning – that all-too familiar scenario that sees a project is set up to fail with deadlines or resource limits that are set with no consideration for reality. According to the report, this is a flaw that almost no one discusses effectively.

Second, is absent without leave (AWOL) sponsors who fail to provide the leadership, political clout, time or energy to see a project through to completion. Often this is made worse by those who depend on him or her not effectively addressing the sponsor's failures

The there is skirting, when people work around the priority-setting process and are not held accountable for doing so.

Another depressing common issue is the "project chicken" scenario, when team leaders and members don't admit when there are problems with a project but wait for someone else to speak up.

Finally, team members perpetuate dysfunction when they are unwilling or unable to support the project, and team leaders are reluctant to discuss their failures with them candidly.

The report found that fewer than one in five project leaders effectively engage in the crucial conversations needed to solve these five problems, although as it points out, the good news is that one in five does.

Yet in each of the five key problem areas, the study also found a clear difference between speaking up and speaking up well. While about half of leaders make some attempt to speak up, most are ineffective.

Some speak up but water down their concerns, so the issues are never fully aired. Some speak up but do so in a way that provokes defensiveness from others. Only a handful - about one in eight - are able to share their full concerns and feel their views are understood.

According to the report, the lesson to be drawn from this is simple: "Unless and until leaders take measures to ensure their environment is conducive to holding crucial conversations, a significant number of these issues will remain unaddressed, invisible, and fatal."

The key to breaking the vicious circle of silence is to reward those that do. "Be sure to send a clear and public message that these conversations aren't just important, they're crucial—and those who raise them are highly valued," the report suggests.

"If you want to change the values of an organization away from silence and toward candid dialogue, make heroes of those who take a chance with these new behaviours."

Older Comments

Personally I think that there is another cruicial conversation, and that is how will the power structures of the organisation will be changed by the project, and what will be done to bring on-side the losers or how to protect the project from their attempt to retain power. Without this conversation any change could find itself beset with unscrupulous tactcs of resistence.

Colin Gautrey London

Excellent causes, I feel the main cause of failure is not giving value to employees.

CChaitanya India

I agree with the statement - being in a situation of a merger - no communication or poor communication hurts business. Especially employees who feel unconfortable and not valued for all their work. Managers tend to focus on themselves and forget others, or worse they have no clue on how their team is doing or ignore it.

Laura Martinez Canada

The reasons listed here and the solutions are really only the tip of the iceberg. We have and continue to fail to recognise the importance of the psychological and social context when people get together to complete a technical task. If we do recognise that is the case, we fail to do anything about it. This is a bit 'chicken and egg'. How can I deal with it when I can't talk about dealing with it and can't talk about not dealing with it. The psychological context is about the dynamics that restrict the dialogue, power etc. The sociological context is about the dynamics in the system that contribute to the same thing, not understanding the fundamentals of group dynamics as an example.

Graham Scott Brisbane