Overcoming Cobb’s Paradox – A World in Which all Projects Succeed

Overcoming Cobb’s Paradox – A World in Which all Projects Succeed

In 1995, Martin Cobb, then CIO for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, asked a question which has since become known as Cobb’s Paradox. He said: ‘We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?’

‘We know why projects fail’

Well … we sort-of do.

Sometimes – but really not often enough – when projects go wrong, we do some kind of post mortem on them. Or there are recriminations. Or if a project is big and high profile and ugly enough, there is a stink in the media about it.

And we might identify things like lack of stakeholder engagement or unclear objectives or bad estimation or inadequate budget or lack of resources and so on.

If you want it in a nutshell though, projects fail because they require us to do something we can’t actually do.

They require us to predict the future (and make it come true).

If we think about it from this point of view, maybe the question we should really be asking should not be, ‘why do some projects fail’ but rather, ‘how is it that any projects actually succeed?’

If we think about it from this point of view, there is not a great deal of difference between a project plan and a lottery ticket other than the odds. We’d like to feel that the odds on our project plan are better than those for a lottery ticket, but certainly I’ve seen projects where the smart money would have to be on the lottery ticket!

There is, however, also a fundamental difference between the plan and the lottery ticket. In the lottery we can’t influence the odds – they’re fixed. But in a plan, we can. In a plan, we can stack the odds in our favour.

And the way we do that … drum roll, please … is by planning.

‘We know how to prevent their failure’


Well maybe some of us do.

Without meaning to blow my own trumpet, I do.

And this is not because I’m smarter than anybody else, but just because I’ve thought about the problem.

And when you do that, when you start to ask yourself why do some projects succeed and others fail, you very quickly start to see a pattern.

There are certain things that are common to all successful projects and there are certain things that are common to failed projects.

‘So why do they still fail?’ 

Quite simply, they fail because we’re either not aware of this pattern, or – for whatever reason – we choose to ignore it.

 All of the preceding then, brings me to: 

Ten Steps to a Successful Project

*  This is a methodology with a small ‘m’. It doesn’t compete with the big methodologies. If you use PRINCE2, for example, or Agile, or anything else, you still need this.

*  In ETP and Fast Projects, we’ve been teaching / using it now for more than 30 years.

*  It’s been taught to around 10,000 people.

*  I’m not stupid enough to think that they’ve all used it but lots of them have.

*  No one’s every phoned me up and said, ‘I did it and it didn’t work’.

*  Lots of people have told me it enabled them to get their projects done – on time, sometimes early, on budget, sometimes under, delighting their stakeholders.

*  So it has some pretty serious credentials.