The Fallacy of Survivorship In Project Management

Survivorship bias is a logical error that focuses on the survivors of a particular process, while overlooking those that didn’t make it. In the context of project management, this can lead to misguided conclusions about what it truly takes for a project to succeed.

The term “survivorship bias” originates from wartime observations when aviation experts examined planes that returned from battle in WWII to identify where they had taken the most damage. They mapped where all the damage was found and then with this information they considered reinforcing these areas to make the planes more resilient. However, a statistician named Abraham Wald pointed out a flaw in this approach. The planes they were examining had survived, despite their obvious damage. It was the planes that didn’t return—those hit in other critical areas—that needed to be studied. By only looking at the survivors, they were missing vital data on the planes’ vulnerabilities and in fact had they gone ahead they would’ve reinforced areas of the planes that didn’t need reinforcing, and not reinforced areas that did.

How does this relate to project management?

Imagine you want to discover the secret to successful project management (and who doesn’t?). You might be tempted to analyse only successful projects and identify common factors in them (like mapping damage to aircraft that made it back). You then describe successful project management according to these traits of these particular projects and focus your training on these processes, tools, techniques or competencies. On the surface, this seems logical right?

But here’s the catch: by only looking at successes, you’re missing out on a vast amount of data from projects that failed (the planes that didn’t return, and the reasons they didn’t return). These failures can offer crucial insights into pitfalls and challenges that successful projects either avoided or overcame (sometimes by dumb luck!).

Fortunately for us the world of project management is littered with failures. In fact, it could be argued that the ‘norm’ in project management is failure – after all, most projects are somewhat unique, and subject to a myriad of constraints and risks. I’ve never shocked at those oft repeated statistics that 60-70% of projects fail, often used by people to ask what is the point of professional project management when this figure hasn’t changed over 10 or 20 years. I always think that the number is a constant because that’s just what projects are – failure magnets – and yes, that’s a topic for another post but chime in on this if you want.

Success is not just a product of hard work, planning, and strategy. Sometimes, it’s also about being in the right place at the right time – plain old dumb luck. Recognizing the role of luck in project success is essential. Also, don’t discount the role of external factors beyond the control of the project manager. Two projects could be managed similarly, but external factors, timing, or sheer coincidence could lead one to thrive and the other to flounder.

For instance, a company might initiate a project to launch a product just when there’s a sudden surge in demand due to unforeseen circumstances, making the project seem brilliantly managed and executed. Another similar project might face unexpected competition or market changes. Is it fair to label one as superior management and the other as lacking, without considering the impact of luck, coincidence, or external factors?

And that’s why it’s important to analyse and learn from success AND failure. So yes, I’m saying celebrate failure as a learning opportunity. I’m not saying throw a party, give bonus’s and promotions, and advertise to your clients how wonderful you are at project failure. I’m saying, treat them as real opportunities to learn something that will help you be more successful in the future. So don’t fall into the trap of survivorship bias. We all want to be more successful at delivering projects but to truly understand project management the factors that contribute to project success, we have to consider both the winners and the losers.

So, maybe at your next monthly community of practice meeting, or your next post implementation review, or your next portfolio planning session, take time to have someone present about failures and what they learned from them. Do this without judgment, compare it to what you learn from successes, and you are probably on your way to discovering what makes your projects successful (oh, and please take time to really define project success and how you will measure it – again, that’s a topic for another blog, but chime in on this if you want).

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