Business cases, project plans and other myths and legends


Several years ago I attended the most honestly presented training course I can remember.

The subject was project management and towards the end our course leader casually said, “Of course hardly any project is ever delivered on time or within budget.”

It’s one of those statements that experience tells us is true, but which defies reason. Why on earth create project plans that are so unrealistic?

I was reminded of the course by three different events over the course of the last week or so.

Since the beginning of 2016, my local multi-storey car park has proudly displayed notices announcing: “Polite notice: New Parking System in Operation Early February.”

The signs, bright yellow when first plastered throughout the concrete edifice, became dirty and worn as February came and went.

Then, on 7th March, a new sign appeared: “Polite notice: New Parking System in Operation 7th March.” And even then, the system was not operational until at least a day later.

Secondly, French energy firm EDF’s £18bn plans for Hinkley Point are in disarray as the finance director Thomas Piquemal resigned, hot on the heels of the project director. Only today (12th March 2016) EDF’s chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy has asked the French government for extra finding to save the project before it even starts.

Finally, I attended one of my clients’ events on the subject of outsourcing. I’m writing a white paper for them based on the round table discussions, so I was paying particularly close attention. And I was gobsmacked when two of our guests relayed stories about the strategy practices of large consultancies that had prepared business cases for major client projects.

When the same clients asked the delivery side of the same consultancies to bid for the work, they refused, describing the benefits listed in the business case as unrealistic and unattainable.

Why do business cases and project plans lead to disappointment?

Early in my career I always assumed project plans were written to provide a clear idea of how a project will be delivered, how much it will cost and what needs to happen when. And a business case is written to enable boards to make an informed decision about the potential return on an investment.

How naive of me.

Of course, both types of documents are written simply to gain agreement.

Like political manifestos and many proposals, they are too often works of fiction.

They are written with the aim of taking the decision-making process to the point of no return. To a point where all stakeholders are so committed they have no choice but to accept escalating costs and ever-extending deadlines.

Having been dumb enough to be convinced by the business case or project plan we can all too easily become accomplices in exaggerating the benefits and playing down the costs of disappointing projects.

A common theme in change management marketing is the assertion that 80% of projects fail to deliver on their promises. Many different explanations have been offered, but let me offer mine.

They never had a chance. The benefits were overblown to get the deal. Once the agreement was signed, the authors breathed a sigh of relief and some poor sap had to begin working on the real plan.

Or, like EDF, to find a get out clause.