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Project Managers Fail to Help Software Projects (Standish Group Chaos)

10.1 PM Impact on Non-Agile Project Success

Anthony Mersino

September 14, 2023

8:04 AM

Article at a glance
    • The Standish Group’s 2020 Chaos Report challenges the conventional use of projects, project managers, and project management tools in software development, advocating for a different approach.
    • The report emphasizes that Agile projects consistently succeed more frequently than Waterfall, continuing a trend observed over the last decade.
    • Statistically, projects without project managers actually perform better than those with project managers. The Standish Group questions the effectiveness of project managers in software projects, stating that their skill level does not correlate to project success.
    • Additionally, the report contests the belief that project management tools enhance project success, citing research that suggests they may actually hinder it.
    • The Standish Group urges a shift away from traditional project-driven models towards more flexible and continuous approaches in software development.

WARNING: If you are a project manager, you may find this post disconcerting.

In my related post about the most recent Standish Group 2020 Chaos Report, Beyond Infinity, I described the continued finding that Agile succeeds 3X more than Waterfall.

That is not much of a surprise since the Standish Group has reported similar findings in their reporting over the last 10 years.

But there was something new in the 2020 Standish Group Report that I found quite surprising. And that was data that supports a recommendation against using projects, project managers and project management tools when building software.

Though counterintuitive, the Standish Group is quite clear. The data shows that project managers fail more often than no project manager, and you put your success at risk if you use projects, project managers or project management tools when developing software.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Standish Group 2020 Chaos Report – Beyond Infinity

If you have not heard of the Standish Group, you may want to read my related post about project success and failure rates for Agile and Waterfall. In short, the Standish Group has studied success and failure in technology projects since 1994. They have been publishing the results of their studies at least every two years, and they frequently include root causes and recommendations.

Note that the focus of the Standish Group is on software projects. I would extend their thinking to most technology projects today where software is a large component.

I would not extend the results from the Standish Group to include projects outside software and technology. For example, if you are building bridges, you may as well go ahead and use the sequential, plan-driven approaches like waterfall. The technology for building bridges has been around for thousands of years and is pretty stable. May as well, plan the work, work the plan if you are building bridges.

But this is not the case with technology and software development. Only one in three software project is considered successful today and that hasn’t changed much since the Standish Group began studying success and failure in 1994. These failures result in billions of dollars of waste. Which is why we should take the Standish Group seriously.

Here is the thing – prior to 2020 the Standish Group recommended project managers and project management tools as keys to success with software. But in 2020, with 25 years of data and over 50,000 projects in their database, the data tells a different story. In short, the data shows that to succeed with software you should:

I’ve already tackled why you should stop using Waterfall and start using Agile in this related post about success with Agile. Let’s look at the other 3 findings.

Stop Using Projects for Software

Those of you who are fans of the #NoProjects movement probably stood up and saluted this recommendation from the Standish Group. Yep, that is right, using projects as a vehicle for software development is dumb. Why? Projects only focus on the creation part which is shortsighted. Why would we use a project which is by definition, temp­orary and unique? Software should be treated as a product with an entire lifecycle of creation, growth, and maintenance. It is not a one-time event.

The other downside of the use of projects is that create big batches. Even if you take a big project and break it down, you still have lumpy batches of requirements, with a plan for that work to be accomplished within a certain budget and timeline. You follow your sequential plan closely and at the end, you launch that batch of new requirements into production, go through user acceptance testing and only then do you learn about the features that the users really need.

What works better in software is small, incremental improvements, delivered continuously. Those small improvements are easily tested and absorbed by end users. The Standish Group is clear about this:

“The real breakthrough came when we realized that software is infinite, while projects are finite. This is the approach to software development that will break the chains that hold back our advances. Make 2020 the end of software projects…”

— Standish Group Chaos Report (2020) Beyond Infinity

But there is more.

“It is time to STOP doing software development and implementation “projects” – and start simply developing and implementing software. We know we are going to spend money on developing and implementing software. That is a given. What we need to stop doing is artificially breaking software into “projects” with all their overhead and waste of time and money.”

— Standish Group Chaos Report (2020) Beyond Infinity

The Standish Group has been studying software project success and failure for over 25 years and it seems they have turned a corner. They are saying that it is the paradigm of the project that is the root of many failures in the industry.

They didn’t stop there – they are also sharing data that shows that project managers are also part of the problem.


Project Managers are as Likely to Fail as Succeed

There has already been a lot of controversy about the project manager’s role in agile projects. See my related post, the Myth of the Agile Project Manager. Most serious Agile and Scrum proponents feel that project managers add unnecessary overhead and create waste.

The Standish Group Report takes that thinking to a whole new level. While previously advocating for project managers in their Chaos reports, the 2020 Chaos Report, Beyond Infinity Section reverses their prior recommendations.

Looking back to 1999, the Standish Group called the project manager the “linchpin” to success. That changed in the 2020 report. In the 2020 report, they link project success to three factors other than project managers:

  • Executive  Sponsor
  • The Team
  • The Place or environment

They didn’t stop there. The 112-page 2020 Chaos Report includes a Section X at the end called Myths and Illusions. The Standish Group said they are using this section to “set the record straight and remove some of these past mistakes which have created some myths and illusions.

The four myths that they are referring to are from the 1999 Chaos Report:

1. Successful projects have a highly skilled project manager.

2. Project management tools help project success.

3. All projects must have clear business objectives.

4. Incomplete requirements cause challenged and failed projects.

— Standish Group Chaos Report (2020) Beyond Infinity

Let’s unpack the first two of these myths,

Myth #1 – Successful projects have a highly skilled project manager.

The idea that a skilled project manager will help a software project to succeed has been debunked. If anything, having a project manager might actually cause your project to fail.

Using the data from 40,000 projects, they found that the skill level of the PM actually has no bearing on success. And waterfall projects without a project manager fail half as often as those with a highly skilled project manager (see below).

10.1 PM Impact on Non-Agile Project Success

Here is how the Standish Group explained their findings:

Our current data does not support this conclusion [that a good project manager is essential to any project]. Highly skilled project managers have a success rate of only 23% and a failure rate of 19%; but projects with no project manager at all show a success rate of 58% and a failure rate of only 9%. Why is this? The real key to project manager success is a project manager who can make quick decisions, take risks, and not get bogged down in the project management bureaucracy.

— Standish Group Chaos Report (2020) Beyond Infinity

The statistics for project manager success and failure are even worse when you isolate agile projects. Most agile projects do not have an active project manager and they tend to succeed 91% of the time. Those agile projects that include a highly skilled project manager fail just as often as they succeed.

10.2 PM Impact on Agile Project Success

We believe that the general project management process slows projects down and creates unnatural bureaucracy and long decision intervals. The results are based on 10,000 agile projects in the CHAOS database.
— Standish Group Chaos Report (2020) Beyond Infinity

The findings of “creating unnatural bureaucracy” and slowing projects down make sense when you consider the 4 Agile Value statements from the Agile Manifesto:

Individuals an

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