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Project Challenges and Successes of 2015

NK Shrivastava and Phillip George, RefineM LLC

2015 was a year of exciting change, with many successful projects. Along with these, there were some
struggling projects. No matter the size or complexity of the project, there are common threads in the
successes and struggles of these projects. Two examples of struggling projects and two examples of
successful projects are examined. Common themes of the struggles and successes are described, and
links to basic processes are drawn to illustrate how successes can be enhanced and struggles can be
avoided with solid execution of basic processes.
2015 has had numerous examples of both successful and struggling projects, with the struggles adding
up to billions of dollars and several years worth of losses. When we examined four such examples, two
successes and two struggles, we found many things in common.
Among the struggles, we found many key processes to be lacking or performed inadequately. These
include requirements review, stakeholder management, and risk management. We also found
inadequate analysis when using new technology or a new delivery approach. Compounding these
problems, or in many cases caused by these problems, is frequently missed deadlines.
In contrast, among successful projects, we found solid planning in stakeholder analysis, scope, cost,
schedule, and risk management. We also found a commitment to quality that included thorough testing,
tight project execution, and regular and continuous commitment of the project team.
Project managers may not always be so lucky to find some of these success factors on their projects, and
they may also observe some factors present in struggling projects. Fortunately, project managers can
keep their projects on track, no matter how large or complex, with basic project management processes
that are executed well.
To see how these basic processes make the difference between success and failure, we will now
examine two struggling projects, followed by two successful projects. 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762

Struggling Projects
Two high-profile struggling projects had heavy adverse effects, resulting in billions in losses, years worth
of delays, and significant business impact:
1. SR99 Highway project in Seattle, Washington. Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) was awarded a
project to dig out what will become a two-mile, four-lane tunnel under downtown Seattle1. One
of the worlds largest tunnel-building machines, named Bertha, was supplied by Japanese
company Hitachi Zosen to dig out the tunnel.
The project was awarded in March 2010 and was originally scheduled to finish in December
2015. The current percentage complete is in dispute and is anywhere from 11 to 75 percent.
Over $900 million has been invested in the project so far and analysts are not sure if it will be
completed within the original budget. The completion date has moved several times, with the
current projection now April 2018. What went wrong?
Struggles with new technology. Instead of using the traditional twin-tunnel
approach, the team created one large tunnel. The team felt that advanced
technology had made this option cheaper. However, when Bertha
experienced stoppage due to overheating, the project stalled. Repairs are still
ongoing and may cause the April 2018 date to move again.

Large project with high complexity. With a machine as complex as Bertha,

there are lots of small parts and opportunities for errors. These struggles impact
both the project team and nearby businesses. Water pumping related to the
project is thought to have caused several downtown Seattle buildings to shift2.

Figure 1 shows a view of Bertha.

Figure 1. View of Bertha. (Photo credit: Ben Brooks. Creative Commons Licensed.)
1 Lindblom, Mike (2015, 22 October). Berthas restart delayed again; will there be drilling by Christmas? Seattle Times. Accessed 2 December
2015 from
2 Wright, M. (2015, February). A sinking feeling in Seattle. PM Network. Accessed 2 December 2015 from 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762

2. Target Canada Failed Store Launches. Observing that Canadian families often cross to the United
States to buy products at lower prices, and sensing an opening with the failing retailer Zellers,
Target Canada chose an aggressive strategy to open their stores all across Canada3. Between
March 2013 and January 2015, Target Canada opened 133 stores across the country from
former Zellers locations, 124 in the first year4. In January 2015, Target Canada filed for
bankruptcy, and the final Target Canada store closed in April 2015. Overall losses could exceed
$7 billion. What went wrong?
Lack of realistic planning. The aggressive strategy of opening over one hundred
stores in less than two years did not take two key factors into account. First,
could the supply chain support all of the stores? Second, would Target be able
to attract customers?
The results bear out that neither of these factors went well for Target Canada.
There were notable supply chain issues that made it difficult to adequately stock
each store. In addition, the customers did not show up as expected, and when
they did show up, they did not find an experience that convinced them to stay.
Due to supply chain issues and lack of competitive pricing, customers in
Canadian Target stores often left empty-handed. In addition, many Canadian
Target locations were from a failed retailer, Zellers, and their locations were a
poor match for Targets big-box format. Because of these issues, many
customers balked at Targets slogan of Expect more, pay less.

Lack of stakeholder analysis. Target Canada seemed to lack situational

awareness and an understanding of the Canadian retail sector. Answering who
the other key players were and how Target could compete with them could
have helped Targets strategy.

The SR99 Highway Project and Target Canada are two examples of projects that struggled due to many
of the common factors we discussed, including lack of / inadequate stakeholder and risk management,
reliance on new / untested methods, and large size / high complexity. Now, we examine two projects
that succeeded and describe factors that helped these projects succeed.

3 Calleam (2015, 18 March). Target Canada: why projects fail. Accessed 2 December 2015 from
4 Wahba, Phil (2015, 15 January). Why Target Failed in Canada. Fortune Magazine. Accessed 2 December 2015 from 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762

Successful Projects
Two high-profile projects have succeeded or are succeeding, adding value to their stakeholders and
accomplishing unique and exciting things:
1. David Bowie Is Art installation at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. The Chicago
Museum of Contemporary Art was awarded the exhibition of David Bowie Is, an installation
dedicated to the popular musicians life and work, and was set to debut in September 20145.
Starting in August 2013, the project team, known as Team Bowie, began meeting consistently
and working to meet the unprecedented demands of this exhibit. They expected this exhibit to
be the largest theyd ever had, and they knew they needed to get ready. By the time they
opened, they were ready to meet the demand. In the four months the exhibit ran, it attracted
over 193,000 visitors, shattering museum attendance records. What went well?
Incorporation of lessons learned from other projects. David Bowie Is had previously
been exhibited in a Toronto museum. Team Bowie contacted the Toronto museum and
learned valuable lessons for their project planning. For example, they learned to expect
much larger evening crowds than they had anticipated.

Solid project planning. The team identified challenges up-front and made the team fully
aware of these challenges, inviting them to contribute innovative solutions. For
example, the team came up with the idea of the Bowie crush where over 200 museum
employees crammed into the exhibit to test crowd control and spatial logistics.

Outsourcing when needed. After speaking with the Toronto team, Team Bowie knew
their online ticketing system was not robust enough to handle demand. As a result, they
outsourced it in order to build a system to handle the high demand.

Effective stakeholder management. Visitors, funders, and other museum departments

all needed to be included in planning and execution, and they were included. The
museums CFO was part of Team Bowie, helping them control the project budget and
prevent overruns.

5 Parsi, Novid (2015, April). David Bowie Is . . . a Project. PM Network. Accessed 2 December 2015 from 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762

2. Konza Techno City outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Konza Techno City is an ongoing project to create a
silicon savanna for African technology companies outside of Nairobi, Kenya6. The project to
build the planned technology city is estimated to cost $14.5 billion dollars, and it is a flagship
initiative in Kenyas Vision 2030. Konza is planned to be more advanced in terms of both
technology and sustainability than most cities, and planners hope to draw over 200,000 IT jobs
within the next 20 years.
Konza is being implemented in phases. Road construction has started, and Kenya Power has
started to lay the power lines. Although a government-backed authority is overseeing the
project, infrastructure components are being accomplished through public-private partnerships.
The work has not gone without challenges, but those challenges are being addressed in a
proactive manner. What has gone well so far?
The project has a comprehensive master plan. The master plan allows project managers
to keep the project goal at the forefront. Because it has both short-term and long-term
dimensions, project managers can keep immediate work at a detailed level and longterm work at a high level, which is a good example of rolling wave planning.

Phase-based approach. The phase-based approach gives project managers time to

address key challenges such as funding, timelines, and investors. They can also make
changes as needed. For example, the project team had to redesign the water/sanitation
subproject to meet the citys projected needs of 100 million liters per day.

Sustainable approach. Early in the project, the team recognized a potential impact on
local wildlife. They responded by creating a 2.4 square mile wildlife corridor so wildlife
could flourish without impacting plans for the city. By integrating wildlife concerns with
the plan, project managers prevent long-term problems and achieve sustainability goals.

6 Haak, Emma (2015, March). The projects behind the cities of the future. PM Network. Accessed 2 December 2015 from 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762

What We Learned
Key project management processes factored into the success or struggle of each of these projects.
When key processes were working well, success of the project was compounded; likewise, when key
processes were missing or performed inadequately, failure was compounded.
Figure 2 is a table containing our observations of which key project management processes worked well
or did not work well on for each of the projects we described. We start with the successful projects and
then move to the struggling projects. If we found a process to be working well on a particular project, it
is shaded green; if a process was not working well, it is shaded red. Cells are not colored if we did not
find enough information about the process working on the project to judge.
Key PM Process

David Bowie Is

Konza Techno City

SR99 Highway

Target Canada

Project Charter
Stakeholder Management
Project Schedule
Communication Plan
Risk Register
Performance Reporting
Figure 2. Key Project Management Processes Observed in Successful and Struggling Projects.
Based on our observations, we offer the following four key lessons to project managers who want to
learn from these projects and replicate their success (or avoid their struggles) on their own projects:
1. Project management fundamentals are still important. Although 2015 involved many projects
with new technology and unique outcomes, the fundamentals of effective project management
remain much the same. We saw projects that struggled or succeeded depending on key factors,
Clarity of the scope and requirements,
Stakeholder analysis,
Quality control, and
Risk management.
2. Remember the stakeholders. Knowing the stakeholders and successfully managing their
expectations is critically important. Effective stakeholder management can enhance positive
outcomes by helping the project gain necessary support and resources and prevent future
problems. Lack of or inadequate stakeholder management, as seen with the Target Canada
project, can cause key opportunities to be missed or put the project under unnecessary threat
due to agitated stakeholders. 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762

3. When trying something new, look for lessons learned. These can include similar projects
conducted by other companies, internal lessons learned databases, historical information, and
many other sources. Team Bowie at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art benefitted
greatly from lessons learned by other museums that exhibited, including Torontos museum.
The SR99 highway project, which struggled due to incorporating new technology, may have
benefitted from closer examination of lessons learned from comparable projects.
4. Essential processes can achieve big results. We saw that strong communication, status reporting,
and risk management helped Team Bowie deliver a successful exhibit. A strong project charter
and master plan, as well as effective risk management, have helped Konza Technology City
grow. Likewise, we saw that the SR99 highway project could have benefitted from better risk
management and scheduling. Finally, the Target Canada store openings could have used better
risk management and stakeholder management.
In this article, we described two struggling projects and two successful projects carried out fully or
partially in 2015. In examining these projects, we found that essential project management processes
were at play in many of the successes and struggle. The key takeaway is that an essential set of basic
processes can help teams effectively plan, implement, and succeed with their projects. Even on large
and complex projects where greater project management rigor is required, a focus on the essentials is
the first step toward project success. By establishing these essential processes and refining them
through continuous improvement, any organization can reap the benefits of successful projects and
avoid the pain associated with struggling projects.
RefineM is proud to offer Essential Gear for Project Managers Level 1, a basic set of eight essential
processes to help organizations deliver their projects successfully. If your team or organization is looking
for guidance in implementing essential processes, please feel free to contact us. Were happy to help. 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762

1. Calleam (2015, 18 March). Target Canada: why projects fail. Accessed 2 December 2015
2. Haak, Emma (2015, March). The projects behind the cities of the future. PM Network.
Accessed 2 December 2015 from
3. Lindblom, Mike (2015, 22 October). Berthas restart delayed again; will there be drilling by
Christmas? Seattle Times. Accessed 2 December 2015 from
4. Parsi, Novid (2015, April). David Bowie Is . . . a Project. PM Network. Accessed 2 December
2015 from
5. Wahba, Phil (2015, 15 January). Why Target Failed in Canada. Fortune Magazine. Accessed 2
December 2015 from
6. Wright, M. (2015, February). A sinking feeling in Seattle. PM Network. Accessed 2 December
2015 from 405 N. Jefferson Ave, Springfield, MO 65806 417.763.6762