Project Case Studies – Worthwhile or Waste of Time?

Over the past year, I have personally experienced something that I had not expected when speaking to potential clients. There appears to be an increase in the desire for case studies. Regardless of the type of project, nature of the work, or the type of business, I noticed a consistent theme – companies want to see case studies for a project that is like theirs.

As I begin to explore this pattern, I ponder what is causing this to occur. I came up with the following possible reasons that a client may wish to see a case study:

  1. They do not believe this project approach (or technique) will be successful; they need proof that a specific approach has worked in the past
  2. They do not believe this type of work has been done before; they do not want to be the “guinea pig”
  3. They wish to learn from another project’s approach (i.e. do what was successful for another project)
  4. They wish to avoid making the same mistakes as another project

There may be other reasons that a client may ask for a case study, but these are the ones I came up with. I am fairly confident that these should encapsulate most situations.

Let’s explore the root cause of these reasons. It’s logical for a team (or organization) to the sensitive to risk and take steps to avoid assuming excessive risk for a project. However, there are times where studying a previous experience is a waste of time. The following are some factors that I believe causes most case studies to be relatively low in real value.

  1. Every project is unique in its scope, requirements, and constraints.
  2. Every project is likely to be unique in organizational culture, team dynamics, success criteria, business domain and strategy

Even if you take two completely identical projects, let’s say building a housing community of the same scope, schedule, and budget, they will have unique elements such as the geographic location, level of experience of the workers, type of materials and resources, the list goes on. Hence, I believe that it is very difficult to gain significant insights into how a successful project may be leveraged for a future project, even if the two have very similar characteristics.

Am I saying that we cannot learn from past projects? Absolutely not! We certainly can and should learn from past projects, but we need to first evaluate the various characteristics of a successful (or unsuccessful) project to decide whether it applies to our initiative. A project can have a specific outcome as a direct result of any number of factors. We must study those factors to decide if they exist in our project to find out its applicability.

Let’s take an example of opening a new restaurant. We believe that we can build a profitable restaurant in the same neighborhood as other successful restaurants because of the location, so we pay a premium to prove the ideal site for our business. However, we may be making the incorrect assumption that site alone is the success factor; it’s possible that the other restaurants are successful due to their marketing strategy that entices customers.

In my experience, most project case studies give a great story on how a unique set of problems were overcome with a unique set of people, processes, and/or tools. The uniqueness of situational successes leads me to take the position that many case studies will not be useful for how they have been successful. That said, I believe that what we have a higher chance of learning is what NOT to do; avoiding ineffective implementation of tools and/or processes could offer value.

In closing, depending on the type of initiative you are working on, approach case studies with a critical eye so that you do not invest valuable time trying to find the “secret sauce” that may not exist!

Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai