IPMA International Project Management Association
5 November 2020 / 8:00

Kintsugi: Can its philosophy be used to heal the broken projects?

The broken projects are an unending battle resulting in staggering losses to organizations across the globe (Lim, 2020). Some recent examples such as BBC incurring £7million loss on abandoned license fee project (Singh, 2020) or the three years delay in implementation of 3DEXPERIENCE PLM platform at Ericcson (Ogewell, 2020) are just the tip of the iceberg of cost and pain associated with the broken projects.

While there is no one defined mantra to heal the broken projects, the quest for finding new inspirations, approaches and methodologies to heal such projects continues.

Kintsugi is a traditional Japanese healing technique to repair the broken pots. The technique entails glueing together the broken parts of pottery with a lacquer painted with gold or silver powder. The Kintsugi philosophy emphasizes to preserve the history of the object rather than disguise the imperfection (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintsugi).

Though the technique is used for joining pottery, the healing philosophy has significant potential to be used in other domains such as healing the broken projects. Particularly, as the Kintsugi encompasses accepting the change and non-attachment, the philosophy provides a mechanism for introspection of the broken and troubled projects and taking actions to heal the losses and pain of failure.

Then the question is how to use Kintsugi to heal the broken projects? To answer the question, below we present some strategies that draw upon the Kintsugi philosophy of accepting change and imperfection and making things work by healing and fixing the projects in problems. Needless to mention that the strategies discussed below are neither exhaustive nor conclusive but are meant to develop new inspiration and approach for the management of projects. The discussion will also help in knowledge fusion and cross-disciplinary integration of knowledge which is very much needed for enhancing project management efficiencies.

Strategies to heal the broken projects

  1. Accept the change

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”  Accepting the change is, thus, the first and foremost action on the path of recovery and healing the broken project.

It is imperative that the project organization recognizes the issues, problems, risks and constraints in relation to the project and accept that things are not as planned and will not be same as planned. The potential effects on project deliverables, people and outcomes need to be accepted. There could be new people working on the project resulting in staff attrition, there could be changes to scope to fix the broken elements which could ultimately change the final product or output. A mental re-baselining of project future, realizing what has happened and what is going to happen is critical.

Such an acceptance will help guide discussion with the project client(s) to help them accept the change too. For instance, in case of Ericcson’s 3DEXPERIENCE PLM platform implementation project, the project stakeholders successfully managed to heal the broken elements in the project and reversed the project problems by rethinking and accepting what is needed to be changed (Ogewell, 2020).

  1. Identify the broken elements and strategize how to glue them together

Identifying broken parts or elements in a project is the next step towards fixing them. Finding the deliverables trail and incomplete or missing deliverables will help in building a strategy to glue the parts together (Barger, 2016). Creating an accurate list of accomplished, in-progress, and incomplete work breakdown structure (WBS) elements, work-packages and deliverables will bring clarity around the broken parts of the project and help in the healing process. Barger, (2016) highlights the importance of examining the documentation for completeness, correctness, approvals; and ensuring that documentation is in place to have a better assessment of the status of broken parts.

Once the broken parts are understood and accounted for, then it comes down to see how to put broken parts together and move towards actual work to fix them. This may require someone with expertise in fixing the broken projects to come onto the project and work out the future course of action. An understanding of contingency and management reserves will be useful to see how broken parts can be glued together. Conducting meetings to discuss the difficulties and modalities of the future course of actions will be part of the healing process (Barger, 2016).

  1. Identify and manage stakeholders’ apprehensions

One of the key action items in the healing process is to identify, understand and manage stakeholders’ apprehensions and concerns about the broken project and its impacts (Drupal, 2019). An understanding of how the client wants to proceed will be the key to fix the problems.

Some clients will have a clear understanding of sunk costs and will be interested in putting a stop to the project after getting things streamlined i.e. getting some broken parts fixed to get a completed structure in the end, albeit an imperfect one. Other clients may be concerned about the investments that they have already made towards the project and don’t want to treat such investments as a sunk cost and may like to continue on to get to the end. Client preferences then need to be considered by conducting a realistic assessment of how broken parts can be fixed. The element of imperfection (based on Kintsugi philosophy) will always need to be considered and highlighted to the client to manage their apprehensions and expectations.

  1. Identify the tools and techniques that can be used for the recovery process

The use of lacquer (urushi) and golden or silver powder are the important ingredients to glue the broken parts and give a sense of completed structure to the broken pottery as per Kintsugi philosophy. This provides a robust mechanism to people working on broken projects to choose the right tools, techniques, processes, and methods to glue the broken project work packages and deliverables.

Best practice approach as propagated in project management may not work given the exceptional circumstances. Also, people with traditional project management knowledge may not have the skills to fix the issues, so people with specific expertise on broken projects need to be brought in so that they can steer the project work with the use of right tools and techniques (Drupal, 2019).

  1. Bring in the resources that know how to glue the broken parts

Kintsugi philosophy entails the use of human resources to glue the broken parts. In hindsight, the person glueing the broken parts will have an inherent interest in doing such an action, which constitutes him/her as the rightful resource for taking that action.

Using this philosophical underpinning, bringing in the right talent is critical when it comes to fixing the broken parts in a project as well. A rightful talent will be the one with required skills, experience and attitude to help heal the problem.  This is very much evident in Ericcson project case, where a managerial staff (Euro North Manager of Dassault Systèmes) was the one who managed to steer the project from a broken state to a working state (not fully perfect) with the help of Ericsson’s team (Ogewell, 2020).

  1. Accept imperfections

Accepting imperfections is at the core of Kintsugi philosophy. When the broken parts are glued together and painted with a golden or silver colour, the structure will look complete but with visible imperfections. That is very much the case in broken projects context as well. The cost and time overruns, scope creep and other technical problems would have sapped the energy and resources of the project. By the time action is taken to fix the broken parts, things are irreversible. Therefore, embarking on fixing the broken project should be recognized as a process of achieving completion with imperfections and preserving the history of what happened on the project. As such, transparency has been cited as one of the crucial steps in fixing broken projects (LSA Global, n.d.).

Obviously, there will be cases where costs and negative perceptions associated with recognizing imperfections may outweigh the benefits of recognizing them, and stakeholders may not wish to reveal them. But, in all cases, learning from experience and history of project will help the organization become resilient in the face of future broken projects, and hence it is beneficial to recognize the imperfections as enshrined in the philosophy of Kintsugi.

In this regard, the Ericsson case is a good example of recognizing the imperfections and making such imperfections as a part of the history of the project (Ogewell, 2020).

  1. Provide leadership on Kintsugi process and raise awareness

It would be stating the obvious to say that healing broken project needs leadership, leadership and leadership. That says it all. Project organizations need to have someone who can lead the healing process. Leadership will lead by showing courage to fix the broken parts, tenacity and patience to undertake the healing process, compassion and empathy with other team members, and coordination capabilities to complete the work. The role of leadership in fixing the broken project is clearly demonstrated in the Ericsson project case as explained above.

Having leadership that understands the philosophy behind Kintsugi will be important in raising awareness among the other staff members for them to embrace the idea of Kintsugi and use it as a motivation to put the off-track projects back on track.

Concluding thoughts:
The healing process enshrined in Kintsugi philosophy provides a simple yet powerful mechanism for management of broken projects. The importance of accepting the problematic state of affairs and consequential imperfections that follow when problems are resolved makes Kintsugi a very beneficial approach for project management use. Particularly, as the failure rate of projects is very high, project management needs new inspirations and techniques, and Kintsugi provides one such inspiration.

Follow: #ideannovation_jiwat (on LinkedIn)

Barger, R. (2016). How to Fix a Broken Project: Lessons for the Project Manager, https://www.projectmanagement.com/articles/348760/How-to-Fix-a-Broken-Project–Lessons-for-the-Project-Manager
Drupal, (2019). Healing a Broken Project, https://events.drupal.org/seattle2019/sessions/healing-broken-project
Lim, R. (2020). 15 Fascinating Project Management Statistics, https://hive.com/blog/project-management-statistics/#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20research%20by,they%20set%20out%20to%20achieve
LSA Global, (n.d.). How to fix a broken project in 3 steps, https://lsaglobal.com/blog/how-to-fix-a-broken-project-in-3-steps/
Ogewell, V. (2020). Making All the Right Moves: Saving Ericsson and Dassault From a PLM Failure, https://www.engineering.com/PLMERP/ArticleID/20795/Making-All-the-Right-Moves-Saving-Ericsson-and-Dassault-From-a-PLM-Failure.aspx
Singh, A., (2020). BBC wastes £7m on abandoned licence fee project, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/09/16/bbc-wastes-7m-abandoned-licence-fee-project/

© 2020 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat is currently serving on the Editorial Board of International Journal of Project Management.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals and Four of his published papers have remained in Top25 most downloaded papers. Additionally, two of his papers have been ranked as the Most Cited article published since 2012. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the issues confronting project management in various industry based outlets.