Top Led Failure

The following entry is part of the Pattern Library. The Pattern Library records the common patterns of behaviours and events that have the potential to lead to project failure.

Pattern name : Top Led Failure

In brief :
Strategic blunders by Senior Executives at the start of the project put the project on a course to disaster.  Because the flawed decisions were made at the most senior of levels, the problems is never corrected resulting in a project pursuing a path that will eventually led nowhere other than project failure.

Description :

The key strategic decisions made at the start of a project set the context within which all other project work will be performed.  Flaws in the strategic decisions such as project objectives, the approach to the project, vendor selection and which technology to use, can set a project on a course to disaster.

In top led failures the process for making these critical decisions is flawed.  In a typical scenario the decisions are made autocratically by an executive in an elevated position within the organization.  Typically the executive lacks the necessary knowledge or experience to make the decision and because the decision was made in an autocratic manner no alternate options are considered.  In addition, the risk analysis that should accompany any critical decision is also omitted.

Because the decision is made at a high level within the organization, lower levels either shy away from questioning the decision, or if they do question the decision, lack the necessary political power to be able to have the decision reevaluated or analysed.

Again because the decision was made at a very senior level, such decisions are often perpetuated even after it becomes apparent that the decision was a flawed decision.  Many top led failures can go on for extended periods even after it becomes clear to almost everyone on the project that the project will never succeed.

Note: Newly appointed or newly hired Senior Executives are particularly prone to this problem.  Maybe in an effort to stamp their leadership thinking onto the organization, new managers often initiate projects without performing appropriate due diligence.

Typical sequence of events :

  1. Key strategic decisions are made by Senior Management who lack the direct knowledge or expertise needed to make the decision effectively
  2. Decisions are usually made using an autocratic style by a single individual or possibly a small group
  3. Expert advice from those who have the appropriate knowledge is either dismissed or simply never solicited
  4. No formal evaluation of alternatives or risk analysis is performed
  5. Anyone who questions the decision is dismissed as a naysayer and all opposition to the decision is either quashed or simply ignored

Negative effects :

  1. Complete project is compromised due to flawed strategic decisions.  All subsequent money invested in the project is wasted or subject to significant losses
  2. Poor moral as lower levels of the organization work on a project which oftentimes they know is unworkable

Example :

  1. Denver International Airport Baggage Handling system


Related patterns

  1. Dismissal, denial and disbelief

Suggested Actions :

Because top led failures are usually driven from the highest levels of an organization, they can be amongst the hardest for a Project Manager to prevent.  However, here are some ideas;

  1. Discourage managers from taking “firm” positions on a strategic decision until appropriate analysis has been completed
  2. Recommend that independent experts are called in to assess project feasibility before starting
  3. Recommend the use of a pilot project or the creation of a prototype so the risks and issues can be more clearly illustrated to Senior Management
  4. Find ways to allow a graceful exit strategy should the Senior Executives want to change their minds
  5. Build into the project stage gates with clearly defined and measurable objectives that can be reported against.  Stage gates can allow the problems with the project to be identified earlier and hence prevent the pain of a full scale troubled project