There is No Root Cause for Project Failure

When Projects fail, professionals want to know why, so they can learn and prevent similar failures in the future. A lot of smart people have worked diligently, to research project failures in an attempt to find, and share with us, the root causes. While this drive to find “the root cause” of a project failure is well intentioned, and has some value in helping us find answers, I believe it’s fundamentally flawed. It can lead to incorrect solutions, ineffective corrective actions, and unintended consequences.

This notion about the fallacy of using root cause analysis in complex systems isn’t new or something I invented. It’s very eloquently addressed in the February 2012 article from the Kitchen  Soap Website, Each Necessary, but only Jointly Sufficient . My intention with this blog is to address the concern in the context of analyzing why Projects fail.

Projects are complex systems. Complex systems produce results through the interactions of their network of parts, or people, in the case of Projects. When the system produces its desired output, we don’t look for the root cause of that success, because we understand that the result is the integration of the interactions between all of the contributors. Why then do we assume that, when a Project fails, or produces an unfavorable result, there must be a singular cause?

Our desire to know, understand and fix variances to the plan is a natural behavior of Project Managers. It’s what we do…we solve the problems that prevent us from achieving project objectives. We’ve been trained to use analysis as a technique to solve those problems. When we analyze something, we use reductionist science to break a system into its parts so we can examine each part to determine how its function, or malfunction, affects the whole system. In addition, to ensure that we’re not being too superficial in our search for variance causes, we’re given tools like the “5 Whys?” and encouragement to be “relentless” in our pursuit of “the root cause.”

The problem with the root cause approach is that it seeks to explain multi-dimensional phenomena using a single dimensional cause/effect chain thinking model. The reality of our Projects is that they are an intricate and dynamic weave of interdependent activities, events, behaviors and contexts. I’ve assessed many troubled projects during my career, and in my experience, I’ve never found a root cause for any of them. In every case there were several contributing, “necessary” causes, and only when they were combined, did they yield the conditions that were “sufficient” to cause the failure or dysfunction. Defining this network of contributing causes, each in itself “necessary”, but only jointly “sufficient”, must be the objective of any project failure forensic analysis.

With a “cause network” to inform us we can, with the confidence, plan and implement a comprehensive set of effective project management interventions to correct the problems and prevent their recurrence. That confidence is the product of using a system thinking perspective and the achievement of a holistic understanding of the contexts and interdependencies related to the contributing causes.

So don’t look for the root cause of Project failures…they don’t exist.  Look instead for the network of necessary causes that together form the sufficient conditions for failure.


About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
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3 Responses to There is No Root Cause for Project Failure

  1. Boris Bogdanov says:

    Very good explanation. I had it in my mind, but you`ve found right words for this phenomena. Thanks

  2. Pilar says:

    I have seen that argument many other times from other sources, but this time this argument sounds me more convincing. Thanks very much.

  3. ibillwilson says:

    I’m not sure where this “single cause” idea is being pushed, but I keep seeing it everywhere. It’s been pretty well-accepted in health & safety and high-hazard industry circles that “single root cause” is a fallacy. Even as far back as 1994 when I first came across “root cause” as a concept, the discussion was always framed as if there were probably 2 or 3 root causes and perhaps a half-dozen contributing causes, all of which require some level of corrective action. Nowadays, whenever I discuss, teach, or perform root cause analysis, I always speak of the need to investigate and prove existence, necessity, and sufficiency at every step of the investigation, i.e. for every causal claim… which naturally drives you towards a multi-cause conclusion. One way of doing this is to simply to add a few causal logic tests to the old 5 Whys technique, something I suggested in my blog back in 2005 or so (and which has since been referenced by others in a few books, several magazine articles, etc.) It may be of interest to you. Regards!

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