Improving Project Success Rates through Standardization

A surprisingly small number of corporate projects actually succeed—here's how to increase the odds.

By Fernando Portes

Any object thrown in the air will always return to the ground due to a physical principle (gravity). There is no such principle in pharmaceutical projects, because there is no law that says that any group of individuals will successfully work as a team. To the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence to assert that many or most groups of individuals will not naturally work as a team.

Some recent high-profile examples illustrate this fact. In an interview with Rolling Stone, General Stanley McChrystal, former top commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, described he and “his aides speaking critically of nearly every member of the president’s national security team,” all of which led the General to eventually step down from his post. There was also the spectacle of the French National Soccer Team, former World Cup Champions, who “self-destructed” during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa—TV cameras showed players shoving each other and refusing to practice prior to a match.

The individuals on both teams represent some of the most prepared, seasoned people in their lines of work, and yet they all failed collectively. What could then be expected of teams with less elite, less prepared and less seasoned team members, just like you, me, and our peers?

Overwhelming evidence has proven that in all industries, in all countries, in all areas, many or most projects fail and are abandoned before completion, or are executed late or over budget [1-4]. For example, for U.S. IT projects in any given year of the past decade, roughly 25% of projects are done on time and on budget and meet the stakeholders specifications; roughly 25% of projects have to be abandoned before completion, and roughly 50% of these projects are executed late or over budget. In other words, the success rate is 25 percent. The cost of these project failures in the U.S. was estimated at $150 billion [5].

The pharma industry has its share of troubled projects, and most pharma professionals know of late, overbudget, or failed projects. One of the keys to reducing the risk of failure is to develop standardized best practices that can be applied to each project. Included are the following two important practices:

1. Develop your organizational Project Management maturity. The ability of your organization to execute projects can be measured with maturity models. It has been proven that the higher the organizational project management maturity of an organization, the more projects are executed on time, under budget, and meet stakeholders expectations [6-7]. Unfortunately, my experience in managing projects for clients and teaching graduate level project management to pharmaceutical professionals suggests that the industry has not yet embraced the development of project management maturity models.

At most, the IT groups of some big pharma companies are in the initial stages of developing project management maturity models for their organizations. I have not seen, however, similar efforts in other areas within those organizations, or in small or medium pharma.

2. Train and certify your key employees in Project Management. Several U.S.-based (PMI) and international (IPMA, PMAJ, APM, AIPM) project management organizations have developed bodies of knowledge that guide practitioners and team members on how to properly execute projects. In the U.S., it has become common practice for many organizations to advertise PMP certification as a requirement for many project management jobs. Although I am not aware of studies linking the use of certified project managers with project success, logic and common sense tell us that it is far better for organizations to adopt such practices than to ignore them, as bodies of knowledge provide roadmaps, however imperfect, to management projects and organizations, and practitioners do not have to reinvent the wheel in every project [8-10].

In the absence of the will, or funds, or time to implement project management maturity or to adopt a body of knowledge regarding project management, organizations must then at least begin the task of implementing project management standards, templates, and software, building project management governance structures, creating project management offices, as well as adjusting human resource policies and incentives [11]. Through the adoption of maturity models and project management bodies—or at a minimum improving the organization’s project management knowledge—manufacturers can the likelihood of success in all projects, large and small.


1.    Shenhar, A. Reinventing Project Management. DoV Dvir. 2007, p.5.
2.    Morris, P. The Anatomy of Major Projects: A Study of the Reality of Project Management. 1990. p. 7.
3.    Morris, P. The Management of Projects. 1997. p. 4-212.
4.    The Chaos Reports (any year). Standish Group.
5.    Dalcher, D., Genus, A. Avoiding IS/IT Implementation Failure. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management. December 2003. p. 403-407.
6.    Nieto-Rodriguez, A., Evrard, D. Boosting Business Performance through Program and Project Management. PriceWaterhouseCoopers. 2004.
7.    Bannan, K. Potential for Greatness. Project Management Network. May 2005. p.51.
8.    Hass, K. Managing Complex Projects. 2009.
9.    Cicmil, S., Cooke-Davis, T., Craujor, L., et al. Exploring the Complexity of Projects. 2009.
10.    Hodgson, D., Cicmil, S. Making Projects Critical. 2006.
11.    Thomas, J., Mullally, M. Researching the Value of Project Management. 2008, p.77.

About the Author

Fernando Portes, MBA/MEng/MPS/PMP/CQE, is a member of the editorial board of this magazine. He is an experienced project/program manager, engineer, and educator, who has managed projects and programs for MTV Networks, Schering-Plough, Merck, Baxter, Actavis, Mayne Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and Wyeth. He has MEng and MPS degrees from Cornell University and an MBA from Catholic University (Santo Domingo). He can be reached at

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