First published as an editorial in the Project Management World Today E-zine of the PMForum web site. Published here December 1999.


Musings Index

Risk: Failure or Opportunity?

You are responsible for an important institution and have this desire to build a fitting monument to its achievements. You decided that a tower of great architectural beauty will be built in close proximity. Since the site is close by, ground conditions should be well known and can be taken for granted. Besides, soil investigations take time and add considerably to the cost. Recipe for failure? Of course.

Construction commences but when the tower reaches four storeys tilting is evident and construction is halted. Years later, construction is resumed only to be halted after adding four more storeys. Now well over schedule and cost, a definite project failure? Certainly. More years later, a penthouse is added-off-center in an attempt to redistribute the load. Even so, the penthouse floor is so out-of-level that one side has to be raised by over 30 cms (12 inches). Under the added load the tower continues to incline, and now several degrees out of plumb, it is never used for its originally intended purpose.

The tilting continues to progress, albeit very slowly, but by now your tower has engendered a great fondness so that every effort is made to save it. Many and various are these efforts to stabilize the tower and even to right it, but more often the condition is aggravated rather than improved. Needless to say, dignitaries and politicians wade in with threats, counter threats and law suits. By any project management standard, this is not just a failure but a project disaster.

If you haven't recognized it, this is the story of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in central Italy, a fascinating read. Begun in 1173, the tower was finally finished in 1370 and still exists to this day. The tower is renowned world-wide and thousands of tourists come to see it every year. Recovery has engaged the best architectural, engineering and geotechnical minds in the business, and hopefully the delicate engineering works currently underway will save it from final collapse. That the building has survived for over 800 years is remarkable in itself, considering the short life span of most of our modern buildings. By these measures, the project has been a valuable asset and an outstanding success. Our point is that before you condemn a project as a failure based on narrow project management criteria, first consider its potential for real opportunities.

For the history of the Pisa tower, visit:

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