Better Lucky than Good!


Project Managers, like all human beings do not want to think that their success is due to luck.

After all we are PMPs1, or have some other PMI2 post-nominal letters after our name – all highly skilled professionals. How could it be luck?

Our standard text is the PMBOK3 not the PMBOL4.

Of course, when something goes wrong, we will rail at “Murphy’s Law”; but that is bad luck, and not the same thing at all – or is it?

Is luck a factor we should consider in project management?

Since it is a factor in most avenues of life, it is reasonable to assume that it is a factor we should consider when we are assessing “Project Risk”.

There are two forms of luck which we need to consider:

  • Random factors which affect a specific project or event.
  • Cumulative factors which tend to reinforce advantage or disadvantage, that originally arose through luck, good or bad.

Random Factors

These are events where we encounter a positive outcome, which we assign to skill rather than luck, or we survive several similar events and discount the risks, not accepting that we had simply been lucky.

Let’s look at some examples.

Submarine Warfare

In his book “A Battle of Birds and Wolves” about the WWII Battle of the Atlantic, Simon Parkin, describes an incident where a convoy escort commander successfully sinks a U-Boat, after one of his charges was torpedoed.

Up to that point in the war the Royal Navy had not been successful in combating the U-boat threat, and tonnage losses were mounting. This success was heralded as a breakthrough by the Admiralty and the tactics used were rapidly communicated to all escort commanders.

The problem was that the tactic was flawed.

Captain Gilbert Roberts whose team were developing a game to simulate the Battle of the Atlantic, with the aim of developing anti-submarine tactics for the escorts, realized there was a problem.

From analyzing the U-boat attack he concluded that the torpedo had been fired from inside the convoy and therefore was not fired by the submarine sunk by the escorts. They had by luck stumbled upon another U-boat lurking on the periphery of the convoy waiting for its change to slip into the formation for an attack.

This is not to disparage the escort, they had detected and sunk a U-boat, but had there been a single U-boat it would have slipped away whilst they were beating about in the wrong place.

Interestingly Roberts confirmed his hypothesis by speaking to a senior officer who had served in submarines in the previous war. Strange that these lessons had not already been passed to the escorts and had to be relearned.

Based on the hypothesis Roberts and his team “Gamed” various scenarios and developed tactics to combat such attacks, helping to turn the tide of the battle.

Were it not for Robert’s team the Royal Navy, would have been implementing faulty tactics and the outcome of the battle could have been quite different.

2003 A Space Tragedy

This story proves the even rocket scientists can get it wrong.

On the 1st of February 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed on reentry killing all seven onboard.

Analysis of the tragedy revealed that parts of the foam coating on the external tank, broke off striking the wing and damaging the surface of the leading edge. The damage allowed superheated gas to enter and destroy the wing when the shuttle reentered the atmosphere.

Although NASA management knew about the foam strike almost immediately, nothing was done because this had happened on several previous launches, and these missions were completed successfully. Managers therefore disregarded the events, normalizing them, failing to recognize that they had been “lucky”.

But this time their luck ran out.

This topic is suitable for a full post on Risk, so I will not go into more detail here.

Balkan Blunder

In a previous post, Planning -The Great Illusion – WWI Part 2, I gave details of the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

One incident I did not cover was the fact that after the first assassination attempt there were discussions held on whether to continue the visit.

One official pressed for a continuation and can be paraphrased thus, “Of course it is safe, how many assassins do you think there are in Sarajevo?”

Again, a case of not clearly understanding how lucky they had been, and another situation where their luck ran out.

You can find more details by following this link.

Cumulative Factors

What do I mean by cumulative factors?

These may start as a random factor such as:

  • When you were born
  • Where you were born
  • Your parents

This is something you may or may not accept as luck.

(Dis)Advantage will accrue from the random event which will build and accumulate from subsequent event.

A case in point is given by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book “Outliers”

Canadian Hockey Players

Gladwell introduces us to Canadian Hockey player selection and explains why a sizable percentage of top players have birthdays in the first four months of the year.

The cut-off date for inclusion in a hockey league is the 1st of January. This means that players born in late December are nearly a year younger that those born in early January when the season starts. Not necessarily a big deal for adults. The example Gladwell gives is of players who turn 10 on January 2nd and will be nearly 11 by the time the December born players turn 10. This is a huge advantage at that age.

The system now takes over.

Given size and developmental advantage, however slight, the January player is selected for elite teams and receives more and better coaching as well as more playing time.

There may not have been a huge difference in ability to start with, but with all the accumulated advantages the January player is much better by the time they are both in their mid-teens.


It is easy for us to assume that we live in a meritocracy and will succeed based on our skills and ability. As the above examples show this may not always be the case.

It is also interesting that Michael Young who coined the term “meritocracy”, in his satirical book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, did not intend it to be a term approbation.

Top Lesson for Project Managers

As project managers it is normal practice at the end of a project, a phase, or a sprint to perform some form of analysis to determine lessons learned.

But often we focus only on what went wrong. Which of course is essential, because there is no worse crime that repeating the same errors in subsequent projects.

Equally, it is just as grievous a crime to keep repeating what we falsely believe to be successes. Had Captain Roberts failed to analyze the convoy attack in detail the Royal Navy would have been repeating ineffective tactics.

In the case of Sarajevo and NASA, key people failed to accurately assess the risk because they had got away with it before. A case of nothing to see here.

Our final example is one not specifically relating to short term projects, but to our profession and how we develop talent for the future.

Can we improve our development and education systems to be more inclusive, and not dependent on the luck of birth, date, gender, race or some other factor?

It is only a little over twenty years since I hired the first ever female service engineer in the company I was working for. It did give me my 15 minutes of fame with the all-female corporate HR department. 

Also, I recently had a conversation with my sister who mentioned the fact that when we were at school in the 60/70s, she could not study Technical (This included shop, draughting, and engineering science).

Things have moved on since then and are continuing to improve, but are we moving the needle enough?

Are you Lucky or Good?

  • When reviewing a project ask yourself honestly was I lucky or good?
  • If it is too good to be true – It is!
  • Do not be blinded by what went wrong
  • Just because you got away with it once or twice, does not mean you always will
  • When you are selecting or developing talent, are you missing rough diamonds because the system is flawed?

I intend to visit some other aspects of luck in a later post.

Please tune in next week for the tragic story of why the longest bridge in the world collapsed.


1Project Management Professional

2Project Management Institute

3Project Management Body of Knowledge

4Project Management Body of Luck

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Rashid N. Kapadia

    A thought provoking article. I never thought about luck when considering risk. Thanks.

  2. Wilonda Ieans

    Interesting article; I agree with Rashid, very thought-provoking. I now have another way of accessing risk in my projects. Thank You!

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