… or, The Positive Side of Being Negative!

Every now and again a high-profile project – usually IT-based, often but not always a public sector one – hits the headlines for failing spectacularly. Massively over budget, months or even years late, didn’t even deliver what was expected… you’ve heard it all many times.

These big failures often generate research papers, blog posts and online discussions (certainly among project management nerds) about Why Projects Fail. A quick google on that three-word phrase brings a whole rash of list-based articles… the Four Common Reasons Why Projects Fail, the 7 Project Dangers To Avoid, even one called 101 Common Causes Why Projects Fail.

But take a step back: there’s one single over-arching factor why projects fail.


You can read any one of the Lists of Common Failure Reasons, and they’ll cover things like: unclear objectives; scope creep; poor governance; bad estimating; ineffective communications; changing business case; and so on. But given these dangers are so well-known and yet still bite even experienced Project Managers on the behind, there’s something else going on. It’s the “Yeah, but that won’t happen on THIS project!” syndrome.

Prepare to don the Hat of Negativity!

It’s human nature to focus on the positive, and that’s A GREAT THING.

We need to have a positive, can-do, get-that-obstacle-outta-my-way mentality to be any part of the project, especially if you’re leading the delivery. Optimism = Good.

Over-optimism / blind optimism / unfounded optimism however = Dangerous.

Hat of Negativity smallSo early on in a project, in the exciting ideation / initiation stage, you need someone on the team (usually the Project Manager) to temporarily but deliberately take a pessimistic view of the world. Think of it like a Hat of Negativity that you put on, just for a little while (even a few hours will help!) to imagine a future where the project failed, and why it failed – and what you can do about it in the present day to prevent that future failure.

Take a long, hard look at any of the generic Project Failure Reason lists and seriously think on each item: that could happen on my project! Think: what am I doing to prevent that happening on my project?

Then be prepared to go over to the Dark Side on a regular basis through the duration of the project… once  a week, maybe for no more than half an hour, get the Hat of Negativity out of the desk drawer and check how you’re doing avoiding the major dangers. Then take it off and go back to being your usual sunny self 🙂

Project Management = Risk Management

Hey look, I managed to get 400 words into a post about Risk Management without using the term Risk Management!

But that’s what this is really about. The best Project Managers are the ones who understand that spotting and avoiding Risks should be a huge part of their job. I forget who first said it to me, but one of the best definitions of Project Management I ever heard was “avoiding unpleasant surprises”.

So be positive about being negative. In a controlled, productive way of course.

And if you need help with your risk management, or any aspect of your project or programme management, give us a shout. We’d be delighted to help.

Good luck!


Sophie Fraser