Why Are Projects a Problem?

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Why do we discuss business analysis in terms of projects?

Is it because projects are popular? They're also prone to failure. A crowd of "Popular Failures" isn't the crowd I want to be associated with.

Is it because projects are valuable? Projects don't deliver business value. Solutions deliver business value. Projects are just one way to manage change to a solution.

Is it because business analysis is a project discipline? Project managers may be the only change professionals who work exclusively in projects. Business analysts have something to do as long as there is change or potential change, to either the business or the business environment. Business analysis is a business discipline practiced when doing business.

The project-centric view of the profession has many consequences for business analysis:

  • We struggle to make a compelling case for the value of the profession and the professional.
  • We can't find meaningful measures of BA performance.
  • We can't get support for key work, such as ensuring that changes stay aligned to business objectives.

This analysis indicates that business analysts should seek distance from projects. So why do BAs have so much trouble talking about their work without talking about projects?

The solutions to intractable problems can sometimes be discovered by reframing those problems. In this case, knowing how projects seduce us is the first step: you have to realize that there is a box to have a chance to think outside the box.


It doesn't have to be like this.




Why Are Projects Popular?

Change is necessary for organizational survival, but it is not sufficient. Stability is also necessary.[1] Successful organizations can provoke changes that increase performance, and prevent changes that decrease performance. Projects are one way to control adaptation and maintenance, but not the only way. If projects cost a lot, fail a lot, and don't deliver business value, what makes them so popular?

The answer may be counterintuitive: projects are popular because of human nature. Some basic aspects of our species - what we are and how we think - make projects seductive. Four aspects seem most relevant to this discussion: thinking fast[2], attention to danger[3], natural change strategies[4], and an optimistic bias[5].

'Project' is a simple idea.

It is a rare person who has not been part of projects from early childhood.[6] Who doesn't instantly understand “on time, on budget, on target”? Our brains are efficient[7] so we prefer things that are simple and familiar. Projects are both. Any approach that is unfamiliar[8], more complex[9], or both[10] has an uphill battle for attention. Soundbites work for a reason.

Projects are interesting.

Humans can't ignore danger, and change always carries an element of danger.[11] Projects are one way to make changes; therefore they grab attention. Projects take time to complete, so they also hold attention[12]. Stable operations that just tick along are the opposite: it feels like nothing new is happening, so we get bored. Continuous improvement methodologies can become boring in a similar way.

This wouldn't matter if humans were rational, and allocated resources based on risks. In reality we 'steer where we're looking' and put resources into the things that have our attention. Until a lack of maintenance is seen as a clear and present danger it can fall below our threshold of attention.

Consider a manager or leader trying to accomplish something. Any tool that helps them get attention and hold it is likely to help them get resources. Projects are a simple, obvious way to help them accomplish their goals.

Projects are successful enough, often enough.

The Standish Group Chaos Report (2011) showed 34% of projects are successful, and 66% are not (15% fail and 51% are challenged). Projects - sometimes a single project - can use a significant portion of an organization's resources. This makes projects seem hugely wasteful - but we don't see a huge number of businesses closing their doors because of failed projects. Organisations do fail, but badly executed projects are rarely the root cause.[13]

This means that for most organizations, projects are successful enough, often enough. Change capability is one factor in the success of the organization - but it is one among many.[14] Imagine a world where 100% of changes are successful - the new solution works as expected, and the cost of the change matched the estimates. Will companies still fail because of uncontrollable factors such as disasters and market shifts? Will new organizations still invent disruptive new business models that destroy existing business models and the companies that rely on them? Will strategy still matter? Will the ability to execute on strategy still matter?[15]

Projects are personally rewarding.

No matter what return the business expects for investing in a project, for the change agents[16] working on a project it is often in a high-yield and low-risk scenario. It is usually easy to avoid blame for failure by finding root causes[17] that have nothing to do with my heroic efforts to rescue the change. It is also easy to gain recognition by claiming some responsibility for success. Change methodologies that tie personal responsibility to outcomes (like Agile) can be quite frightening - and may be too dangerous for individual change agents to support. Projects are also personally rewarding because they provide a sense of accomplishment when they are completed. Operations and maintenance are like doing the laundry: the job is never really over[18].


What can you do?

There are other approaches to controlling organizational transformation[19] but they do not have the seductive power of projects. Humans have intrinsic motivations and cognitive biases, and several are triggered by projects. We may know that projects are not the optimal way to manage a change, but our rational side is often overwhelmed by our inherent irrationality.

If you are in a position to choose the organizational approach to change, consider this question: "What rational arguments can I use to change my stakeholders' irrational behaviours?"


You will need to find ways to address the irrational factors that attract people to projects. The key change lever is not likely to be an argument about cost savings or efficiency or agility.

If you are in a position to educate people on the purpose and value of business analysis, take some time to root out the project-centric thinking in your own work. Business analysis does not happen before or after a project, any more than it happens inside, outside, to the left of, or underneath a project. Business Analysis is the practice of enabling change in an organizational context by defining needs and recommending solutions that deliver value to stakeholders.[20]

Business Analysts don't work in or around projects. Business Analysts work in a business, provoking and preventing change.

[1] An organization that can't adapt to changing conditions will struggle and may fail (e.g., newspapers, BlackBerry). An organization that can't maintain stable conditions will struggle and may fail (e.g., dam failures (Lawn Lake http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawn_Lake_Dam), Val di Stava Dam http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Val_di_Stava_Dam_collapse), bus companies http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/12/bus-company-crackdown-operation-quick-strike_n_4430482.html).

[2] Thinking, Fast and Slow, D. Kahneman (2011)

[3] This is why "it bleeds it leads" is so powerful.

[4] On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, C.Darwin (1859)

[5] "Optimism bias" is the name for the tendency we have to underestimate difficulty or danger as it applies to ourselves, and overestimate our own chances of success and gain.

[6] What grade were you in for your first teamwork assignment? Your first class project? It's not just renovations or packing for vacation that can be thought of as a project: they're all around us.

[7] E.g., Lazy.

[8] E.g., Experiments.

[9] E.g., Continuous Improvement.

[10] E.g., Data-driven decisions, Agile.

[11] Danger refers to the possibility of suffering a loss, harm, or injury; danger is often associated with fear. Risk (in conversation) refers to danger. Risk (in business) is often intended to refer to the probability of an event occurring, where that event could be a loss or a gain. Since humans almost never say "we are at high risk of success" the business version of risk is at odds with human nature. To avoid arguments about this, this discussion uses 'danger' - a word that hasn't been co-opted yet.

[12] An earthquake grabs attention and then it's over and our attention is diverted. An infectious disease holds attention as the change continues to spread. Note: These examples do not imply that projects are diseases or disasters. Much.

[13] Running the wrong project is likely to be much worse than running a project badly. A change that increases business value realization by less than desired still increases business value realization - the 'return' part of the return on investment (ROI). The wrong change is one that decreases or destroys the ability for the business to realize a return.

[14] For a much more detailed look at the relationships among change system performance and operational system performance, see Improving Business Analysis Performance - A systems-model for evidence-based performance improvement (J.Sammy, V.Bhalla, Y.Jordan, J.Merkle, D.Oluge, R.Scott, A.Yagodkina) IIBA, 2014

[15] As Captain Picard said to Mr. Data, "It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life." As it happens, I recalled this as, "You can do everything right and still fail. That is part of being human." I quite enjoyed the delicious discord of flawed memory meeting perfect digital memory.

[16] Everyone involved in making the change is a change agent, including sponsors, change managers, business analysts, subject matter experts (SME), project managers, testers, and builders (developers, engineers, designers, etc.). In many cases the individual change agent also has a role as a stability agent, sustaining the operational systems. For example, a developer who writes code for a new feature may also correct code for an existing feature.

[17] 'Find root causes' is doublespeak for 'blame'. In many cases blame is victimless (no scapegoat is needed for 'changing market conditions'). If a victim is required one can always be found ('Alex did not properly anticipate changing market conditions' or 'Tony did not make use of market projections').

[18] This was stated poetically by the Eddings, when they wrote "A deed once done, is done forever, but a task returns every day."

[19] Change is a controlled transformation of organizational systems, as stated in the Business Analysis Core Concept Model (BACCM) from IIBA.

[20] This is the new definition of business analysis from IIBA, taken from presentations about version 3 of A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK® Guide).

Julian Sammy

A passion for business performance has driven Julian’s decades-long, evidence-based exploration of human behaviour, emerging technology, and information science. His insights are often surprising, and are shared in a provocative, engaging style in print and in person. Julian has delivered inspiring and informative keynotes, created and delivered many track sessions, and advised senior managers and executives from many industries. As the Head of Research and Innovation for IIBA, Julian led a global team of volunteer researchers in the creation of a scientifically testable theory of business performance. As a member of the Core Team developing the next version of A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK® Guide) for IIBA, he drove the collaborative development of the Business Analysis Core Concept Model — a work that is so fundamental to the profession that it is the foundation for the new definition of the profession. In March 2014 Julian Sammy and Kathleen Barret co-founded MicroMarketplace, to get on-demand expert advice to managers, one hour at a time.