Cobb's Paradox:   "We know why projects fail, We know how to prevent their failure - so why do they still fail?"  - PM 360 Consulting
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Cobb’s Paradox:   “We know why projects fail, We know how to prevent their failure — so why do they still fail?” 

Cobb's Paradox

Cobb’s Paradox:   “We know why projects fail, We know how to prevent their failure — so why do they still fail?” 

Cobb's Paradox

The Standish Group Sample Research Paper  

Unfinished Voyages  

Cobb’s Paradox:  

“We know why projects fail, we know how to prevent their failure — so why do they still fail?”  Martin Cobb  

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat  Ottawa, Canada  


Off the coast of the eastern seaboard in 1906 there were 177 shipwrecks. These shipwrecks were  caused by accidents, bad management, carelessness, errors in judgment, and pilot errors –all of  which can be attributed to human (as opposed to technological) failings. So too were the results of  The Standish Group report on development project failures.  

From November 6th through the 9th, 1995, The Standish Group held CHAOS University in  Chatham, Massachusetts. CHAOS University was a follow-up to the CHAOS study published in  January 1995. The Standish Group estimates that almost 80,000 projects were cancelled in 1995.  While The Standish Group identified the ten main causes of these failures (along with possible  solutions), it was unclear whether these solutions could be implemented. In response to this and by  invitation only, CHAOS University brought together 60 IT professionals for the purpose of digging  down to create two additional levels of detail in the implementation of the success factors.  

Achieving the answers to solving project failure often lies in developing written communication such  as problem statements, project plans, and detail specifications. However, one of the problems with  any written communication is the participant’s (reader’s) level of understanding. As technologists, we  think, write, and talk in a manner that is not readily grasped by many people outside our industry.  Aside from sounding intimidating, you run the danger of the reader actually thinking they  understand what you are saying, while your meaning may in fact be entirely different. To paraphrase  the words of the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge “Until you understand a reader’s ignorance,  presume yourself ignorant of his understanding”. In other words, write the document devoid of all  technical terms and pseudo technical terms. This includes words used by our industry, but rarely  used outside our industry. Words like paradigm, metric, abstraction, and orthogonal, should not be  used in any document if you want the normal reader to understand. Remember it is your job make  the reader understand the plan. It is not your job to show how smart you are or to demonstrate that  you can use big words.  

At CHAOS University Martin Cobb, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Ottawa, Canada  outlined his paradox: “We know why projects fail, we know how to prevent their failure — so  why do they still fail?” Throughout the next year via both magazine articles and our home page  (, Standish will explore the next level of detail and work to solve the  mystery of Cobb’s paradox.  

The CHAOS Report surveyed IT executive managers. For the purposes of project comparison, The 

Standish Group used the project success criteria from the surveyed IT managers to create a success  potential chart. The success criteria were then weighted based on the input from the surveyed IT  managers. The most important critera, “user involvement”, was given 19 success points while the  least important, “hard-working, focused staff” was given 3 success points. The table below lists the  criterion in order of importance with their appropriate success points.  

SUCCESS CRITERIA                                POINTS 

  1. User Involvement                                     19 
  2. Executive Management Support         16 
  3. Clear Statement of Requirements       15
  4. Proper Planning                                        11 
  5. Realistic Expectations                            10 
  6. Smaller Project Milestones                    9 
  7. Competent Staff                                        8  
  8. Ownership                                                   6 
  9. Clear Vision & Objectives                        3 
  10. Hard-Working, Focused Staff                3

Total                                                                100


CHAOS University attendees broke down each success criteria into another level of detail.  Attendees of CHAOS University were asked to problem solve and come up with five positive ways  to achieve each of the success criteria. As you read the five reasons, consider whether or not you  have considered them in a real project. After each explanation of the five positives, they are listed  again in question form. Ask yourself each question with a specific project in mind and allot yourself  the number of points specified for each YES answer. After reading all ten success criterion and the  positive ways to achieve them, you should be able to calculate a score which can be a maximum of  100 and a minimum of 0. This number represents your project’s success potential.  


In this COMPASS Report we look at the first level of detail. 


First, find the right user or users. Look for users up and down the organization. Second, involve the  user (or users) early and often. Third, establish a quality relationship with the user(s) by keeping  open lines of communication throughout the life of the project. Fourth, make it easy for them to be  involved in the project. Last, but not least, talk to them and find out what they need. After all, the  only reason the project exists in the first place is because someone needs to use the business 

application when it is finished.  

  • Do I have the right user(s)? _____  
  • Did I involve the user(s) early and often? _____  
  • Do I have a quality user(s) relationship? _____  
  • Do I make involvement easy? _____  
  • Did I find out what the user(s) needs? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 3.8 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 19) _____  


First, find a key executive with a vested interest in the successful outcome of the project. Second,  the key executive must have a bottom line responsibility to his/her personal career. Third, the  consequence of failure is acceptable. Fourth, show the key executive a well-defined plan. Fifth and  final, show the project team has a stake in the project’s success. In addition, allow for continuous  communication with the key executive in all aspects of the project as it moves through its life cycle.  

  • Do I have the key executive(s)? _____  
  • Does the key executive have a stake in the outcome? _____  
  • Is failure acceptable? _____  
  • Do I have a well defined plan? _____  
  • Does the project team have a stake? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 3.2 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 16) _____  


irst, write a concise definition of the vision in the short-term, the mid-term and the long-term.  Second, write a functional cross-section analysis and allow for re-iteration. Third, develop a  functional risk assessment and management document. Develop a business case statement outlining  return on investment. Finally, define metrics, measurements, and milestones to determine success  and/or the completion of the project. Additionally, define what is not to be included in the project.  

  • Do I have a concise vision? _____  
  • Do I have a functional analysis? _____  
  • Do I have a risk assessment? _____  
  • Do I have a business case? _____ 
  • Can I measure the project? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 3 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 15) _____  


First, develop a brief formal problem or concept statement. This document should include a  statement describing the problem and the resulting benefit to the organization if the problem is  solved. Second write a requirements definition or concept solution document. This document is not  the full specifications report, but outlines possible solutions to the problem. Third, identify the  proper personnel. In this regard, name names and let these people know what their role is in the  project. Have a firm start date and require the personnel to be available on that date. Develop a firm  functional specification. Do not let this document promote scope creep, however it should allow for  changing business requirements. Finally, develop a project plan with attainable milestones and  prioritization. One the attendees said that users want so much out of their projects it is like  “prioritizing an avalanche.”  

  • Do I have a problem statement? _____  
  • Do I have a solution statement? _____  
  • Do I have the right people? _____  
  • Do I have a firm specification? _____  
  • Do I have attainable milestones? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 2.2 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 11)_____  


First, write a firm and clear specification document outlining a project that is attainable. You need to  take the time to write this document. To invoke the old saying “If you fail to plan … then plan to  fail.” Second, prioritize project needs. Eliminate most of the features that are “wanted” or “nice to  have”. One of the attendees said that when a user insists on wanting too much she just nods,  knowing she will deliver what she can. We need to be clearer and sometimes braver, concentrating  on and delivering only features that are required. Third, develop smaller project milestones. Fourth,  provide for change and manage the change. Fifth, prototype the project.  

  • Do I have clear specifications? _____  
  • Do I have prioritization of needs? _____  
  • Do I have small milestones? _____  
  • Can I manage change? _____  
  • Can I prototype? _____ 

For each question with a YES answer, add 2 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 10) _____  


In the majority of cases, 20% of a project’s features will provide 80% of user benefits. The first thing  is to concentrate on the twenty percent. Second, create a top-down design by understanding the “big  picture” and breaking the project into manageable parts. Third, set a time limit on project milestones  and deliver what is completed in that time limit. Fourth, use prototyping tools. Fifth, measure,  

quantify and account for the results.  

  • Am I using the 80/20 rule? _____  
  • Am I using a top-down design? _____  
  • Am I setting time limits? _____  
  • Am I using a prototype tool? _____  
  • Can I measure progress? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 1.8 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 9) _____  


First, identify the skills required; such as an understanding of the business, leadership experience,  and technical knowledge. Second, recruit appropriately skilled people from both inside and out of  the company. Third, develop a well-structured and continuous training program. Fourth, provide  

and present incentives such as career advancement, skill expansion, and of course money, either in  the form of bonuses and/or raises. Such incentives will insure the staff will be focused on the  project and willing to see it through to the end.  

  • Do I know the skills required? _____  
  • Do I have the right people? _____  
  • Do I have a training program? _____  
  • Do I have incentives? _____  
  • Will the staff see it through? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 1.6 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 8) _____  


First, clearly define roles and responsibilities for each member of the project team. Second, define an  organizational model which supports the above accountability. Third, communicate the defined  roles throughout the corporation. Fourth, tie incentives to the project’s success. Finally, get 

commitments from each project participant, including users and key executives.  Do I have defined roles? _____  

  • Do I have a defined organization? _____  
  • Does everyone know their role? _____  
  • Are incentives attached to success? _____  
  • Is everyone committed? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 1.2 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 6) _____  


First, share the vision with all people and groups affected by the project. Second, be sure the  objectives align with corporate goals. Third, make sure the objectives are achievable. Fourth, create  measurable goals. Finally, install honest and continuous sanity checks.  

  • Is the vision shared? _____  
  • Is the vision aligned with company goals? _____  
  • Are the objectives achievable? _____  
  • Are the objectives measurable? _____  
  • Do I have honest sanity checks? _____  

For each question with a YES answer, add 0.6 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 3) _____  


First, provide incentives for the staff such bonuses, raises or promotions. Second, have the staff  concentrate on quantifiable deliverables. Third, convey to each individual that they have part  ownership in the project. Fourth, communicate that each individual has a role, which is inclusive of  functioning as a team. Build a team that works well together. Finally, a proper plan with attainable  results and milestones will build confidence in the staff and keep them focused.  

  • Are there incentives? _____  
  • Are we concentrating on quantifiable deliverables? _____  
  • Does each member have part ownership? _____  
  • Does everyone work together? _____  
  • Are we building confidence? _____ 

For each question with a YES answer, add 0.6 points to the total project success potential score.  Total Points (not to exceed 3) _____  

Calculate all of the points to achieve the final score.  

The Success Potential for Project ____________________________ is _________.  

Copyright 1996  

This report is the property of The Standish Group International, Inc. and is made available to a  restricted number of clients only upon these terms and conditions. The Standish Group  International, Inc. reserves all rights herein. Reproduction or disclosure in whole or part to parties  other than The Standish Group International, Inc. client, which is the original subscriber to this  report, is permitted only with the written and express consent of The Standish Group International,  Inc. No part of this report may be reproduced, stored or distributed via an electronic retrieval  system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without express written permission from the  publisher. Please respect intellectual rights! This report shall be treated at all times as a confidential  and proprietary document for internal use only. The information contained in this report is believed  to be reliable, but cannot be guaranteed to be correct or complete.  

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