Most people with project management experience are familiar with Cobb’s Paradox. The term was coined when Canadian Martin Cobb was serving as secretary of the treasury board in the mid-90s and famously asked the question:
“If we know why projects fail and we know how to prevent their failure, why do they still fail?”
“This sounds good, but is it really possible? And is it even desirable? Do we want to limit the scope and ambition of our projects to only those that we are certain can succeed? Or will this reduce innovation, creativity and appropriate risk-taking? A spectator at a recent Cirque de Soleil performance was heard to say: ‘I want to see them do things that they can only do half the time.’ Isn’t this what every project sponsor or portfolio manager should be saying?
In fact, this is exactly what I’ve always claimed about true innovators. They throw a bunch of ideas against the wall and watch to see if one sticks. They fully expect that most of their projects will never see the light of day – it’s just part of the process. But then when one does stick, it’s wildly successful, so it’s worth all the failures it took to get there.
Hillson said that understanding how to prevent failure cannot and should not prevent it from happening. In addition to the innovation argument, he mentions several rationales that I’ve paraphrased here:
All projects are risky
Uncertainty is built into every project because each one is unique and complex, based on assumptions and dependencies, and involves fallible human beings. Although the degree of risk might vary, the zero-risk project does not exist. This means that the probability of success for any project is less than 100 percent.
Most projects include unmanageable risk
We aim to manage risk in our projects, but risk management can never be 100 percent effective. As a result, some unmanageable risks will occur on every project, challenging our ability to meet schedules, budgets or performance requirements. While obviously not the ideal scenario, on some projects, the effect of unmanaged risk will be so significant that these projects will fail.
For more on why some projects will always fail, check out the full post on Intuit's Fast Track blog.