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Surviving Disasters in Project Management: An Interview with Dr. Harold Kerzner

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Failure -- no matter how much we fight it, it's something we all experience in both our personal and professional lives time and time again. And while we can't go about ignoring its existence, we can surely learn to extrapolate certain lessons from a failure.

It's true; within those regions of disappointments and fiascos, there tends to be room for learning, small takeaways used to "recover" from the failed project. But how do we apply that happy-go-lucky idea into a firm, viable course of action as we're busy biting our nails and searching out a new position in fear of possible termination?

To answer this, I spoke with legendary Project Management Professional (PMP) Dr. Harold Kerzner about his upcoming March 2014 read, Project Recovery: Case Studies and Techniques for Overcoming Project Failure. Inside the book, Dr. Kerzner details the various learning curves and practices used to define certain types of failure, as well as how to take those lessons with you to the next project success.

Kyle Dowling: In your new book you discuss customer satisfaction versus customer value. Can you describe for me the difference?

Dr. Harold Kerzner: Value is when a project adds significantly to the business. What's happening in the industry today is that companies end up having all sorts of projects in their queue, but how many add value? That is why some project management offices now create a template that discusses both the business and value purpose before taking on a project.

Often-times, you can complete a project within time, cost and scope, but you've worked on the wrong project, one that adds nothing to your business. I've seen corporations that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that have added no value whatsoever. Companies now want projects that will bring something to them.

KD: You say some projects will fail. Would others in the industry be quick to agree it's inevitable?

HK: The question is: How do you define failure? You show me any executive that always make the right decisions, and I'll show you executives that aren't making enough decisions. If you don't take risks, you become a follower rather than a leader. When you take risks, you expect some of the projects to fail. The problem is that you have to have metrics and have to be able to identify very, very quickly when it's time to pull the plug.

KD: Can failures ever help an organization to succeed further in the future?

HK: Depending on the type of failure. In my book, I discuss partial failure and complete failure. Complete failure is when nothing is learned and there is no value at all. Partial failure is when there is knowledge gained that can benefit the company in the future. Harvard Business School wrote two white papers on that, stating most people don't understand project failure. The real definition of project failure is when no knowledge is gained.

KD: What would you say are the most common reasons for complete failures?

HK: The most common is that executives are establishing budgets and schedules before knowing whether or not a plan can be created to meet those budgets and schedules. Executives establish launch dates for products without actually knowing if the product can be developed. To minimize this, we must track more than time, cost and scope. We seem to rely heavily on just them, but they can't tell you if there is any value involved. We're learning that we have to track more.

KD: In your opinion, why has project management been so controversial over the years in terms of its validity as a profession?

HK: My personal belief is that the resistance sits at the senior-most level of management. They're afraid if they make project management a career path they will have to give the project managers authority and the right to make decisions. They'll essentially have to empower them. What they're afraid of is that project managers will make decisions that should have been made at the executive level. They resist making it a career path and believe PM can be managed on a part time basis, which doesn't work.

The other resistance you have is with functional managers. They are afraid that when they assign people to a project team, the workers will be taking direction from the project manager rather than the functional manager; they will lose control of their resources.

What I'm really saying is that information is power. Those who have control of that information are hesitant about sharing it with project managers, and those who have authority do not want to share that with project managers as well. It has been the stumbling block all along.

KD: Is there a fear the project managers will end up knowing more than upper management?

HK: That's exactly what happens! Project managers span the entire company. They cut across every functional line, and end up knowing more about the daily operation of a company than the senior managers do in many cases.

KD: Can you think of anything responsible for causing that argument to fade?

HK: Project Management, in my opinion, has been driven over the years by customers. Customers will tell a company they want to make sure if they give a contract it's managed correctly. Today, clients expect companies to put their project management capabilities, methodologies and plans into a proposal. They want their managers to be certified, capturing best practices, and sharing those best practices with them, the client.

KD: Over the years, have you noticed any specific changes in project management?

HK: Oh, yes! When I started, almost five decades ago, we were expected to learn from our mistakes because there was no documentation as to the past mistakes of others. Today, as project management has become more of a career path, you now see colleges and universities offering masters, MBAs and doctorates. What that means is that you have textbooks documenting the mistakes other companies have made, so that they will not repeat those mistakes. That is the intent of my book.

KD: What would you say are the three biggest takeaways from a project disaster?

HK: The first is the politics of it, specifically when stakeholders play with the project. The second is an inability to manage risks; people get overly optimistic and put all of their eggs in one basket. And the third is when senior management doesn't believe what the project managers are telling them. In order for project management to be effective, we must all work together.

For more by Dr. Harold Kerzner, visit his site.

For more by Kyle Dowling, visit his site.