How to achieve project success – by Piet Joubert (Da Vinci Faculty)

I have read many articles on how to prevent project failure and asked myself why the glass should be half empty and not half full. I have therefore decided to explore reasons that will make projects a success. Project success depends to a large extent on the initial conditions or start of the project. There are definitely some “things” that we can control, especially at the inception of a project.

The butterfly effect

Butterfly effect

Many project managers and stakeholders don’t have a clue what the butterfly effect is. To refresh your memory here is a very short version. A person by the name of Lorentz was looking for a way to model the action of chaotic behaviour of a gaseous system. On one specific day his computer program was started with inputs that were slightly different from his previous models. When he checked the results a day later he was amazed to find very different end results. This effect is called the butterfly effect because in analogy when a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil it could cause a tornado in Texas. Small variations at the inception of a project could cause large scale unwanted/wanted effects later in the project.

Lorenz made a significant breakthrough in not only chaos theory, but life. Lorenz proved that complex, dynamical systems show order, but they never repeat. Since our world is classified as a dynamical, complex system, our lives, our weather, and our experiences will never repeat; however, they should form patterns.

In mathematics, a nonlinear system does not satisfy the superposition principle, of whose output is not proportional to its input. Linear is a property of straight lines, of simple proportions, of predictability and good behaviour. Nonlinear on the other hand applies to systems that do unpredictable things that cannot be solved exactly and need to be approximated, the one-offs that don’t fit the expected pattern.

Project management takes place in a nonlinear economic and social system. We should therefore do our best when conducting a project to stack the odds in our favour by ensuring favourable initial conditions.

Project management

Project management as a profession is young but not the implementation of projects. We find large and small projects as we go back in history. Many of them marvellous achievements. A few that I can recall are the Tower of Babel that we know was not a success. On the other hand Noah’s Ark ensured the survival of many species. Up until today we can’t replicate the results of the pyramid constructors. The fundamental prerequisite of a project is its temporary nature and a specific time line.

Project management is a method of management applying unique tools e.g. a phased approach and a WBS (work breakdown structure) to lower the risk of the project and make second order problems visible. In order to manage a project from start to finish we model the project life cycle; that is how the project is planned, controlled and monitored from its inception to its completion. Many variables and issues when conducting a project are not controllable in line with the behaviour of a nonlinear system.

Organisation strategy and projects

The logical starting place to ensure project success is the strategic reason for the project. All the “what’s and why’s” of the project. Strategic management provides the theme and focus of the future direction of the organisation. Projects should contribute value to the organisation’s strategic plan. Each project manager should also see her/his project in relation to other projects. The small business and entrepreneur should ask the same questions.

  • Do you have a good business case? How will your project add value?
  • The requirements analysis process should be properly conducted and not be merely a wish list but reflect the real needs of the client.

Systems thinking

Holos is a Geek word meaning all, entire, total. This means we should consider the total organisation when performing a project. It is important for the whole organisation to benefit when we run a project. Systems thinking are about gaining insights into the whole by understanding the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole system.

  • The “solution” of the project must be considered for creating other unintended problems. The “green” electric cars that are becoming popular lately may after all be not so “green” in many countries because we use coal to generate the electricity for charging the car batteries. The burning of coal causes large scale pollution of the atmosphere.  To understand the butterfly effect one must be able to do systems thinking.
  • Use the life cycle approach. That is all phases or stages between the project’s conception and its termination. We develop a standard set of outputs for each phase.


A project should have a good plan. Planning is part of the inception process. It is the foundation of the project. The plan should be achievable. Some projects plans are not realistic and based on wishful thinking and conjecture. No matter how many people are involved it takes on average 9 months for a baby to be born.

Involve stakeholders in the planning process at an early opportunity to ensure good initial conditions. The project stakeholders will contribute to comprehensively identify requirements; needs and possible risks/opportunities. The client must not be seen as an enemy but rather as an ally.

Risk management

It is important to recognise potential and unforeseen trouble. In project management we take certain risks in order to achieve our aims. Some risk events are predictable and others may be a total surprise for us. Preventative planning is an attempt in creating favourable initial conditions. People tend to focus on consequences and not on the events that could produce the consequences.


Modern project management requires a new way of thinking in line with nonlinear and complexity theory. A project is much more than an administrative process of identifying deliverables and putting them in a sequence in order to draw a bar chart for tracking purposes. We have seen that we must develop a new way of thinking being able to identify and develop favourable initial conditions to improve the chance of project success. We must also remember that a butterfly is not a better caterpillar but an entirely different creature. More about this in a next article.

If you want to succeed and achieve your goals there is no other way than the project management process to produce deliverables and complete successful projects. Project management is a learn-able skill. As a manager or entrepreneur you must have good project management skills to achieve results.

Aim for results

Project management course

Find out more about a public project management course that will be held at the DaVinci Institute Modderfontein, Johannesburg from 21 – 23 October 2015. Click here for access to the course brochure on Project Management Principles and Methodologies.

Selected references:

Lucas, C. (2007, June). Nonlinear Science – Chaos Tamed [Online]. Available: [2009, September 1].

Donahue Manus J., III (1997 December). An Introduction to Mathematical Chaos Theory and Fractal Geometry. [Online].Available: 2009 September 1].