Revisiting project successes/failures:


From behavioural biases to project

pork-barrelling by politicians



By Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon)

Sydney, Australia


I first approached questions about project success/failure by writing an exploratory series of six articles in this journal from late 2014. These highlighted a paucity of reliable data on success/failure rates, their types, and causes. In later articles I further examined some of the sparse data from this series in a little more detail. A few of the references I quoted also referred to behavioural bias in decision making, such as optimism bias. However, at the time I did not really appreciate how important they were.

More recently, after reading a book about the work of Tversky and Kahneman on behavioural bias at large, and looking further into Flyvbjerg’s analyses of its relevance to the project context, their obvious importance appears to warrant an additional article.

This article will look further into some aspects of Flyvbjerg’s analysis, starting with optimism bias and the planning fallacy, then strategic misrepresentation and political bias, followed by an extension of the latter into political pork-barrelling with projects.


From time to time I have discussed “project” success/failure in this journal, but lack of agreement about just what constitutes project success/failure, and lack of reliable and comprehensive data, has led to only partial and tentative conclusions about frequencies, causes and effects of project success/failure.

I originally approached this subject in an exploratory series in this journal some years ago (Stretton 2014j-2015e). Those articles demonstrated vast deficiencies in data on project successes and failures, and in published causes of project failures. In spite of the meagreness of data on the latter, the dominance of two cause-of-failure groups appeared to be too pronounced to ignore. One was a project execution-related group of causes, which represented 30% of total causes, and which directly relate to problems in “doing the project right” (to borrow a descriptor from Cooke-Davies 2004). The other dominant group of causes of failure was project initiation-related, and comprised 40% of total causes. These latter causes could be broadly related with problems with “doing the right project”. As we will see, this also appears to be the area in which behavioural bias in decision making has the greatest impact in the project context.

Later, in Stretton 2018a, I discussed some of the above causes of failure in a little more detail, followed by Stretton 2018k, which included material from an article by Jenner 2015. This, in turn, included references to Kahneman, Flyvjberg, and behavioural biases, whose importance I had not fully appreciated at the time. However, just recently I came across an important book by Lewis 2017, which has notably enhanced my understanding of the importance of the work of Kahneman, and his colleague Tversky.


The book by Lewis 2017 is entitled The Undoing Project: A friendship which changed our minds. The friendship was between Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and the undoing related to assumptions about the decision-making process – specifically, about the ways in which the human mind errs, systematically, when forced to make judgements in uncertain situations. Their work created the field of behavioural economics, amongst many other new approaches, and led to Kahneman winning a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 (Tversky died in 1996).

This book automatically led me to thinking more seriously about the importance of behavioural biases in decision making in project management. Coincidentally, around this time David Pells brought to my attention a recent paper by Flyvbjerg on Top ten behavioural biases in project management: An overview (Flyvbjerg 2021), which draws heavily on the work of Tversky and Kahneman, and on his own very substantial discussions and interactions with the latter from around 2003. Some of his findings are now discussed.


To read entire paper, click here

How to cite this paper: Stretton, A. (2022). Revisiting project successes/failures: From behavioural biases to project pork-barrelling by politicians, Featured Paper; PM World Journal, Volume XI, Issue V, May. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/pmwj117-May2022-Stretton-revisiting-Project-successes-failures-behavioural-biases-pork-barrelling.pdf

About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD     

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


Alan Stretton is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).  Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published over 240 professional articles and papers.  Alan can be contacted at alanailene@bigpond.com.au

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/



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