COVID-19 Sustainable Lessons 07: Dealing with Cobb’s Paradox

“We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure—so why do they still fail?

Martin Cobb, Treasury Board Secretariat 1995

Cobb’s Paradox and the Solution

This paradox has been frequently raised again and again in the project management community over the years. A generally accepted solution to it though seems particularly appropriate to remember in the international communities response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The simple and intuitively obvious response to this paradox is:

“The medicine was too painful for the patient.”


The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) outlined the following interpretation to this response (Archer & Manicom, page 12, 2007):

Our view is that the medicine prescribed by those who understand the problem has generally been rejected by the patient as being too strong. To succeed, we will need:

    • mechanisms to ensure that only achievable projects are undertaken with practical approaches that are likely to be workable;

    • environments that are supportive of projects and make success likely; and,

    • involvement of only qualified people in executive oversight, leadership and working positions on projects.


Frequently the organization does not hire or invest in competent or capable sponsors or project managers, or they do not invest in the business case to be able to adequately monitor the project, or they do not invest in the appropriate project costing and scheduling and risk management or other key disciplines. It is the old response:

It is important to emphasize that there were a lot of strengths and weaknesses in many nations and on many initiatives. These posts are intended to provide different perspectives from the COVID-19 outbreak to highlight certain areas where project teams can take some lessons learned and help our organizations better understand.

Project Failure

This post is not about project failure (successful project outcomes and benefits) or project management failure (how the project was managed). Let us use a simplistic perspective to say that project failure is that the project does not deliver the benefits expected from the business case and the benefits realization plan in support of the organizations objectives, and project success is that the project does delivers the benefits expected from the business case and in the time frame outlined in the benefits realization plan in support of the organizations objectives.

This post is also not about the validity or viability of the Standish Group CHAOS reports or their analyses (and does not endorse said publications).

Successful COVID-19 Projects

Lets look at some successful national COVID-19 projects around setting up the testing facilities. Certain governments and their citizens clearly and early on recognized the threat of COVID-19 and that protecting their citizens was their first priority and objective. Protecting and maintaining their economies was also a key objective. They listened to their experts, were able to look at the long term scenarios, and decided that an early investment in projects such as testing were appropriate to their unique national requirements and culture and would provide significant dividends in being able to keep their citizens healthier and maintain their economies. By setting up the testing infrastructure, the governments and citizens would know who was contagious, who needed to be quarantined, the extent of the spread and if their actions were making a positive difference. In short they could make informed fact based decisions.

We have all seen the flattening the COVID-19 curve (Please refer to the posts: Three Keys to Project Work During the Outbreak & Transformational Change Requirements). Certain nations, however, understood that a successful project that could provide provide the information to obtain the necessary information to track the COVID-19 case curve that was decisively completed early and aggressively would be cheaper than paying later.

They knew that the initial high cost of the “medicine” to manage the project aggressively and successfully was appropriate to saving the patient: the country, its people and its economy.

What was the “cost of the medicine”:

They did their research and listened to the experts early on. They moved quickly. They had good sponsors and good project managers. They hired competent resources who successfully delivered. They communicated well and engaged their citizens and stakeholders. They leveraged their suppliers and medical community to provide the infrastructure they needed. They had faith in the business case and the projects to deliver the benefits that would support their countries objectives. Below is an example of how this business case might have been modeled:

Success for them was that:

  • the country knew to a high enough level of confidence the impact and spread of the virus,
  • they identified and contained infected citizens and tracked their engagements resulting in the successful containment of the spread of COVID-19,
  • because of their early testing and containment of infected patients, their medical system was able to deal with the infected patients and was not overloaded, and
  • their economy was able to continue without a reactionary shutdown.

In short their successful project investment helped protect their citizens and economy.

The patient was willing to pay the price of the medicine.


Unsuccessful COVID-19 Projects

There were many causes for COVID-19 project failures in various countries. From a project perspective, the delays in not deciding and investing early and significantly will have lasting impacts on the nations citizens and economy. GPM has provided another post dealing with the impact of delay: Sustainable Lessons from COVID-19: The Cost of Delay.

Other countries did try to establish a testing infrastructure but had delays in establishing successful COVID-19 tests, successful COVID-19 testing centers, reinforcing their supply chains for the necessary components, and testing laboratories to review the results (though new tests will allow for onsite results). Their projects were either badly funded, prioritized or managed (or a combination of these).

The resulting lack of appropriate, accurate and timely information caused significant problems and also delays which resulted in the rapid spread of the disease and an uniformed leadership and public that did not respect the social distancing recommendations. The example below shows two country project responses. The Western Pacific Region Example demonstrates successful projects where the spread of infection was contained and flattened out, whereas the European Region Example shows the results of a testing project that was not as successful and experienced exponential infection due to the delays. The chart below shows from January 18 with the first test results for the Western Pacific Region (the European first test was January 25) up until April 12th 2020.


The populations of these countries by the way are approximately 47M and 50M. The key to all of these graphs is the trending over time and the “flattening of the curve” that was / was not done based on the timing of the project.


The countries that had less than successful projects because they did not pay the price caused a catastrophic impact to their economies due to the herculean responses that were required to compensate for the delays.


The patient was not willing to pay the price of the medicine.

The cost of the medicine was to high for the leaders of certain countries. The leaders were not willing to pay the price for the medicine they and their citizens and economy required.


If you would like a copy of the spreadsheet used to make these analyses, please contact

This spreadsheet contains data from the following countries from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Daily Coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) situation reports:

  • Western Pacific Region: China, Republic of Korea, Singapore
  • South-East Asia Region: Thailand
  • Eastern Mediterranean Region: United Arab Emirates (UAE)
  • European Region: Russia, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, United Kingdom (UK)
  • Region of the Americas: Canada, USA

We have included daily updates from January 1, 2020 to April 12, 2020 for Confirmed Cases and Deaths.


GPM Global joins the global community in thanking the hospital and emergency staff, firefighters, police, grocery store workers, bus drivers and countless others whose exceptional sacrifices and acts of courage remind us of the best we can be. Also, to remind the global community that we can all be better in improving our collective futures. Stay home, stay safe, practice social distancing.




Archer, D. & Manicom, R., (2007). Improving IT Project Performance: Conception, Assessment and Monitoring – An investigation into the causes of IT project failures in the Government of Canada and a recommended course of action for improvement. Treasury Board of Canada, Secretariat.


Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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