Projects fail at an astounding rate. In a study that reviewed 10,640 projects in various industries from among 200 companies in 30 countries, PricewaterhouseCoopers found that only 2.5% of the firms successfully completed 100% of their projects.

Alexander Laufer
Alexander Laufer

How do you get into this elite group of project leaders and how can we boost this less-than-great rate of success?

We’ve interviewed the most competent project managers in some of the most demanding roles in business to figure out some practice-based principles for managing projects—and we’ve found there are four absolutely critical success factors!

Three focus on facing and managing change—the one constant you can expect as projects move along their path. The fourth is the most important tool  leaders should use to insure projects reach the finish line in the way they were intended.

Plan—But Not Too Much!

Terry Little
Terry Little

In today’s dynamic environment, characterized by frequent unexpected events and volatile information, it’s difficult to anticipate all the potential challenges we’ll face with our projects. How, then, can we plan ahead? And how far in advance of our projects should we plan? Successful project managers employ a “rolling wave” approach to planning. That is, they develop plans in waves as the project unfolds and information becomes more reliable.

Overly detailed plans may become rapidly obsolete because in the earliest project stages, there’s not enough reliable data. But we also can’t delay the planning until all information is complete and stable. The “rolling wave” approach is the best middle ground between these two ineffective extremes—it allows the plans to evolve.  

Stay Loose!

Jeffrey S. Russell
Jeffrey S. Russell

In project management, agility means taking quick action during the execution phase, and it requires constant engagement in both receiving and sending information. When you're engaged, you can identify early those unexpected events.

But agility also requires quick responses to those surprises. Why?

In project management, tasks are tightly interconnected. When unexpected events affect one task, many other interdependent tasks may also be quickly affected. If a jobsite problem prompts one contractor to move its workforce to other projects until there's a resolution, it may be too late by then. Recognizing and resolving problems as soon as they emerge is vital to maintain work progress.

Think Ahead

Bruce Maas
Bruce Maas

Proactive resilience is about initiating change rather than simply responding to events. Because it is easier to tackle a threat before it reaches a full-blown state, a successful project manager acts as early as possible—as soon as he or she is convinced that a disruption is unavoidable.

“The 10X companies [companies beating their industry indexes by a minimum of 10 times over 15 years] differ from their less successful companies in how they maintain hyper-vigilance in good times as well as in bad,” writes renowned business guru Jim Collins. "Even in calm, clear, positive conditions, 10Xers constantly consider the possibility that events could turn against them at any moment."

Collins calls this mindset “productive paranoia” because the continuous fear of future disruptions is channeled into readiness to take productive action.

In other words, successful project managers don’t just operate out of a fear of what could go wrong. Their constant search for signs of anomalies is paired with a capacity and willingness to act—and to act in ways that often go against the status quo.  

We're All in this Together!

Since project progress depends on the contribution of individuals who represent different disciplines and affiliations, collaboration is particularly important in proiject management.  In fact, it can make or break the project!

The three Mars exploration missions—Pathfinder, Climate Orbiter, and Polar Lander—all were initiated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory under the same guiding principles. But their performances varied markedly, according to an agency analysis. Pathfinder was the only success of the three. NASA researcher Tim Flores expected to discover that it differed from the other projects due to a number of factors—resources, constraints, personnel.

But the primary differentiator was the level of collaboration. The Pathfinder team developed trusting relationships within a culture of openness. Successful project managers know how to cultivate such an environment by finding suitable team members and by focusing on collaboration and outcomes.

All Tied Up

The four attributes of the successful project manager are interdependent: they need each other for the whole thing to work! As a project manager, you will face deviations from the plans, unexpected events, and major threats to reaching the finish line.

But leaders who recognize these challenges and tap the talents of their team members to find solutions can build that reservoir of planning, agility, and resilience necessary to complete 100% of your projects and be among the leadership elite.

Alexander Laufer, director of the Consortium for Project Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a chaired professor of civil engineering at the Technion­–Israel Institute of Technology, can be reached at; Terry Little, a veteran U.S. Defense Dept. major program manager and an honorary professor at the Defense Systems Management College, can be reached at; Jeffrey S. Russell, vice provost for lifelong learning and dean of continuing studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, can be reached at; and Bruce Maas, emeritus CIO and vice provost for IT at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, can be reached at

This article was adapted from their forthcoming book, Becoming a Project Leader: Blending Planning, Agility, Resilience, and Collaboration to Deliver Successful Projects, set for publication this year by Palgrave Macmillan.