While the challenges confronting development projects are extensive and complex, they are by no means exclusive to projects managed in the development sector.

Chaos Report Project Results

Take, for example, the information provided in this graph and its accompanying table. Each year the Standish Group conducts a survey entitled the Chaos Report, collecting responses from over 10,000 Information Technology (IT) projects. The report identifies the percentage of IT projects evaluated as “succeeded”, “challenged” or “failed.”¹

Year after year, the Chaos Report results indicate that the majority of IT projects surveyed by the Standish Group are assessed as “challenged” or “failed” and only a relatively small percentage are considered to have “succeeded.” In 2008, for example, the percentage of unqualified project successes was 32%; failures (defined as projects abandoned midstream) were 24%, and the remaining 44% of projects were completed but “challenged” by cost overruns, calendar delays, and/or failed to deliver all the project products or services.

It is important to acknowledge that the Chaos Report does not address development projects. The survey was designed and implemented by a project management services firm to study the results of IT projects. However, the results of the report are helpful in that they underscore the challenges of delivering successful projects and they provide data that help us answer the key question, “What are the key issues that result in project challenges and failures?”

According to the analysis of the 2009 Chaos Report, there are three issues that most frequently result in challenged projects².

  1. Incomplete requirements and specifications;
  2. Lack of contingency planning for managing risks; and
  3. Failure to learn from mistakes

Does this sound familiar? What is striking about the analysis of challenged projects in the IT sector is how similar the issues are to those in development sector.

In the end, despite the multiple differences between the sectors that manage their work primarily through the project (for example, construction, telecommunications, information technology, software development and more), they also share similar challenges, including:

  1. Delivering project results in the context of time, budget, quality, scope, risk and benefit constraints;
  2. Developing comprehensive and detailed project plans and managing them through the entire life of the project;
  3. Managing projects that are often implemented via contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers; and
  4. Identifying potential risks and establishing processes to avoid and address these risks and ensuring that the intended project benefits are delivered.

However, while there are similarities that exist between these sectors, there are some characteristics that make managing projects in the development sector unique and, at times, especially challenging.

Some of these unique characteristics include:

  • Development projects are responsible not only for delivering tangible outputs, but also for delivering less tangible outcomes related to promoting social change and/or behavior change.
  • Development projects are less likely to focus on delivering concrete products as the ultimate goal of the project. Instead, they consider these products as a means that leads to improvements in the well-being of the project’s target populations.
  • Development projects aim to address complex problems of poverty, inequality and injustice.
  • Development projects tend to operate in exceptionally challenging contexts (limited resources, high risks, complex procurement networks, unstable political/financial environments, unsafe conditions).
  • Project implementation is often managed through a complex array of stakeholder relationships (partner agencies, government ministries, community-based organizations, contractors, global consortia).
  • The project approach is often as important as the outcomes themselves (including a high priority placed on participation, rights-based approaches).
  • Transferring knowledge and learning to the target population is a priority during each and every phase of the project.

Challenging Project Management Environment

¹“Succeeded” – Projects arrive on scope, on budget and on time.
“Challenged” – Projects are completed but fail to meet the original scope, budget or calendar.
“Failed” – Projects are terminated early.
² Conversely, the Chaos Report indicates that the most likely determinates of project success were user involvement, executive management support, and a clear statement of requirements.

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