Accountability for results trap

Lack of management capacity trap

Cultural trap

One-size-fits-all trap

According to statistics from several sources, there are between 39 to 64% of projects that result in failure and projects’ stakeholders are more dissatisfied than those that are satisfied (Ilk, 2012). This failure might either be with operational implementation as not meeting one of the three project constraints, i.e. project scope/quality, time frame or allocated budget; or by non-reaching the project impact, purposes and Goal. The project failure can be a result of several reasons, e.g. a wrong or impractical design, unclear project scope, lack of communications, overloaded project team, lack of stakeholder engagement, unrealistic appraisals, unrecognised potential risks, poor planning, absence of monitoring and controlling, and weak institutional capacity. Those reasons can be classified into three categories: context related problems, management capacity problems, and sustainability problem (Ilk, 2012). It is believed that those reasons for project failures are the results for failing into one of the following four traps that project managers might sink into: “the one-size-fits-all trap”, “the accountability for results trap”, “the lack of project management capacity trap”, and “the cultural trap” (Ilk, 2012). So, let us analysis more every one of those traps and try to suggest solutions that can mitigate the risk of failing in each one of them so that we can increase the likelihood for the project success.

Starting with the first trap “one-size-fits-all”, it is clear from its name that the project manager and the organisation use the “copy and paste” approach in the planning and managing the project. This is well known as the blueprint approach, which is having one solution plan for each time the project is implemented. In contrast with the process planning, the blueprint approach is non-participatory planning method where the experts and advisors are brought to repeat a design that was successful for a context in another part of the world. This repetition of using the same plans, and designs is hoping to reach the same results. With this approach, the organisation, try to involve less the stakeholders and the communication with them, justifying this as there is intense experience of the technical advisors that know exactly what the problems are and the solutions to resolve those problems. They might design amazing projects, but most probably they might be irrelevant to the communities’ needs, and/or not match with the local culture. With the blueprint approach, there is no time for investing with the local capacities; thus, most probably the local institutions will be disrespected and bypassed. Usually, the result of this trap is that the project achieves its outputs within the time, cost and scope but with not reaching the purpose, Goal and impact. An example on this might be: an organisation that built a high school to increase the ratio of educated people among the population but the high school was not operated due to nonexistence of local teachers, or the absence of elementary school at first. To overcome this first trap, project managers need to understand that no one magic solution can fit each development project. Thus, they need to do more research and assessments from the beginning of the project to understand as much information as possible on the context, i.e. the political stability, the economic growth, the social life, technological application, the cultural norms, and other essential knowledge about the targeted community and its surrounding environment. Project managers should ensure that stakeholders are identified, analysed and communicated well during the whole project life cycle and that international advisors are not experts with identifying the problems and solutions on behalf of those stakeholders. In contrast, the only experts to identify the problems and possible solutions would be the targeted communities themselves. Project managers should be agile and revisit the plans, continue to ensure that they are adapted to fit the project purpose, Goal and impact and those plans are not fixed as if they were bibles and holy books.

The second trap “the accountability for results trap”, is the concentration on achieving the outputs in the most bureaucratic procedures with less focusing on reaching the outcome or whether these outputs were needed. The trap here is that project managers pay attention to the details of how to reach the result rather than searching whether that proposed result is justified and rational or not. Project managers in this trap sink with the details of the procurement procedures, the financial reporting, the recruitment process, and other organisational bureaucratic systems to show the donors and the public that the funds were assigned to the safest hands ever. They invest in the external reporting mechanisms and try to market their work with attractive expressions such as value for money which means that the funds were implemented efficiently. Still, the question will be have the funds been spent effectively, has the project improved the lives of the targeted people? An example on this trap might be that an organisation professionally implemented a medical project starting from recruiting the well-skilled resources, purchased the best items with the best prices, document each financial transaction through the best accounting software but at the end mortality among children was not resolved. To overcome this trap, project managers and their organisations should link the project with long term development plans, whether on the local level, national level or the global level. Local governments should agree with the organisations on how the projects are fit into its developmental national and local plans; organisations should ensure that the projects are helping in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals that the UN has upgraded from the Millennium Development Goals. The rationale behind the project and the Goal that this project was designed to reach should be the utmost aim for the project managers. This can be done by the integration between the result-based management with the impact evaluation process. Organisations and donors should ease the bureaucratic procedures and encourage project managers to be innovative and productive in managing the interventions.

The third trap “Lack of project management capacity” highlights the weakness in the skills, capabilities and capacities that accidental project managers have which result in the failure of the project. Those necessary disciplines are the hard skills such as the technical knowledge in managing scope, managing risks, knowledge in the logistics systems, control the budget and other technical aspects. In addition to soft skills such as leadership techniques, communication with vision, coach the team, productive working environment, motivation, and interpersonal management as analytical thinking, stress management and multi-tasking. Organisations are not investing as much as needed in the capacity development of the project management especially in high risky context, in contrast, they decrease the administrative costs so that they can still be a competitor to new win grants. Organisations decrease the level of the intervention from programmes to projects assuming that this might mitigate the risk of the failure instead of believing in the potential capacities of the locals and recruit the appropriate team to be developed and invested. Additionally, organisations minimise the supervision on those accidental project managers that were assigned with less capacity development investment, instead of increasing the supervision to ensure that projects are under control and deliverables are as planned. Today developing the team skills is not that expensive as it was. There is a diversity of online courses in various topics that can build on the university degrees of them.

Finally, the last trap that organisations and project managers fail in is “Cultural Trap”. As mentioned in the first trap, organisations tend to use blueprints to design the projects and interventions without involving with the local stakeholders. Starting from this mistake, organisations in our days are not that different than those in the colonial era as they tend to bring their western values in each aspect of the project management. Starting with the staff recruitment and the absence of the localisation. Then with designing the interventions without researching the local traditions, cultures and norms. Ending with fewer sustainability plans with evaluating the capacities of the local institutes that can ensure the continuity of the services. One of the examples on this trap is when a European organisation brings its own values and perception on a country in the Middle East with no in-depth research on the culture there and start focusing on the gender balance issue with no understanding what might be harmful and cause more damage to the communities and what can be applicable. To overcome this trap, organisations should put aside their impressions, perceptions and thoughts and conduct full context assessment to be aware of all of the details on that context. Assumptions should be replaced with facts and statistics. Organisations should localise their team as much as possible. Local stakeholders should be involved from the early stages before even the funds are granted to ensure proper design till the end of the project completion, and appropriate hand over is made to ensure the sustainability of services. Organisations should ensure that information sharing and accountability mechanisms including feedback procedures are in place and well active to allow locals to supervise the project management and held the organisations accountably.

As a conclusion, organisations and their projects managers have to understand that donors and the taxpayers behind them are now more accountable than ever and there is no way to accept the high ratio of the failure projects. The news of organisations that are downsizing their operations around the world and those that are immerging with other organisations as they reach a level of impossibility to continue, is increasing more and more. And with the open communications around the globe, any project that fail in a part of the world will be reviewed closely in the other part. Even though above traps, and failure reasons are old and still valid thus, organisations and their projects managers should start activating the learning review process to track their challenges and document the solutions to be used in the next projects. Donors should hold the organisations accountable to those learning reviews and ensure that they are not repeated again and again.

Mazen Housseiny

Mazen Housseiny

PM4NGOs Hub in Syria, Mazen has more than 8 years’ experience in humanitarian field, starting as field volunteer till director position for a variety of well-known organizations (International NGOs as well as Syrian Diaspora NGOs). Currently working as part time with Syria Relief as organizational development manager supporting the capacity strengthening of Syria Relief as well as other CBOs through conducting comprehensive organizational capacity assessments and training needs assessments, design and implement capacity development activities such as training, on the job support, coaching and mentoring in addition to providing the required consultations for improving policies and procedures.


Ilk, L. (2012), Project Management for Development in Africa: Why Projects Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

One Comment

  • Eyad

    i thought this article will start form the international NGOs intervention policies 🙂

    There is a lot to be said in this respect ,The way that NGO is working is too far from the business standards , let us be reasonable ,you need to go to feasibility study before you approve your project this is the only way to make sure that you are reaching the goals as the feasibility study is covering many important sides that the NGOs are careless to consider them .also the one theme is so familiar in the NGOs intervention so it is important that the feasibility study to be conducted by third party entity ,

    *The accountability for results trap
    the article also has omitted some important facts , you aren’t always able to get the national plan for the targeted area ,in the crises like YEMEN , SYRIA , there is no national institutions for planning !
    there is no national goals , the NGO intervention are based on short term impact , no one is care for the national goals to create them , to create the institute of national planning and giving them the power to be able to lead the national decisions , Beside that there is negative impact in the targeted communities due to the NGOs blind-intervention , what about the empowerment of local actors and NGOs that have no governance bodies ? back again to the policies that followed by the NGOs this what we need to start with.

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