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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Great Performances in Failed Projects

It’s always a difficult situation. The last project was late and I don’t mean a few days late. People did a very good job trying to rescue as much as they could but by the time you were in the half you knew they won’t make it on time. Then it comes to these difficult discussions.

– The project was late.
– But we couldn’t make it on time even though we were fully engaged. You know it.
– You didn’t tell me that at the beginning. Then I suppose you thought we’d make it.
– But it appeared to be different. We did everything by the book and it didn’t work.
– The result is late. I can’t judge the effort with complete disconnection from the result.

How to judge a project manager? Final effect was below expectations. Commitment on the other hand went way above expected level. Reasons for failure can be objectively justified. Or can’t they?

Something went completely wrong. Maybe initial estimates were totally screwed, maybe it was unexpected issue which couldn’t be predicted, or maybe we didn’t have enough information about the way customer would act during implementation. Who should take responsibility?

It is said that while success has many fathers failure is an orphan. There’s no easy answer, yet manager has to come with one.

I tend to weigh more how people acted (their commitment and effort) than result (late delivery) but I treat them as interconnected measures. In other words great performer from failed project will get better feedback than underperformer from stunning-success-project. Here’s why:

I prefer to have committed team even when they don’t know yet how to deal well with the task. They’ll learn and outgrow average teams which already know how to do the job.

I wouldn’t like to encourage hyena-approach, when below-average performers try to join (already) successful projects. It harms team chemistry.

If there’s a failure I (as a manager) am responsible for it in the first place. If I did my job well me team would probably be closer to success.

Punishing for failure makes people play safe. Team will care more about keeping status quo than trying to improve things around.

Lack of appreciation for extraordinary commitment kills any future engagement. If I tried hard and no one saw it I won’t do that another time.

in: project management, team management

7 comments… add one

  • Meade April 21, 2009, 6:00 am

    I’ve been on the wrong side of projects myself HOWEVER I’m still a firm believer that the outcome of the project is the #1 indicator of the project manager and team. I’ve seen poorly lead teams succeed and well managed teams fail and there are many many reasons…and excuses…but that’s what the job is and how it’s judged. If I had to choose a PM for my company I would choose one with a history of success as opposed to one with a history of great management.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 21, 2009, 9:42 am

    On this one we differ. I wouldn’t risk hiring an allegedly successful ass-hole who has proven himself by squeezing his teams and when nobody wanted work with him anymore he was changing companies.

    I’ve seen enough swamp projects to know that even superhero PM would fail there. And I prefer one who isn’t afraid of entering swamps because that could harm his crystal clear resume.

    This job is about people in the first place, not about deadlines or scope.

    If I was sure a candidate will deliver project on time but simultaneously will harm team chemistry I wouldn’t hire. It’s a long run, not a single sprint.

  • steve April 21, 2009, 10:26 pm

    Realising individual responsibilities, analysing risk factors,seamless inter communications also decide the success rate of any projects !

  • Jim Anning April 22, 2009, 1:16 am

    For me the defining factor when a Project Manager fails is 'have they learned from it' & by that I mean 'if the same circumstances occurred again, would the PM act differently and deliver a different outcome'.

    Consistently punishing failure will drive project teams to be risk averse – in order to make everything 100% certain estimates get padded and the project always ends up taking longer / costing more than if you adopt a policy that its OK to take measured risks and that if you fail you can quickly get back up on your feet and try again.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 22, 2009, 1:56 am


    You nailed it. Punishing for failure makes people playing safe which is prbably nothing you’d like to see in your projects.

    And the best occasion to learn is on own mistakes.

  • Meade April 22, 2009, 8:34 am

    If there are consistent failures, something needs to be done and if the end result is a more cautious approach to projects resulting in more successes – isn’t that a positive thing (I’m sort of being the devil’s advocate here…just sort of). There’s still a high rate of project failure in IT – until we can all talk about high success rates there’s not much to talk about – right?

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 22, 2009, 9:35 am


    Yes, discussion becomes a bit theoretical, but the question which candidate would you choose between more successful and great manager is not.

    We both know world isn’t black and white. It’s gray. It’s all about having more of this and less of that and about things we value more and these we value less.

    For me team work and engagement is more important than pushing success at all cost and I believe in the long run it pays off. However I don’t say this is the only way to achieve success.

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