When projects go badly, our reaction is often to work harder—by which we mean work longer hours. But it’s rarely that simple. Projects often go wrong at the very start, and their problems are generally symptoms of a deeply dysfunctional organization.

In a career spanning more than 60 years as a senior manager and researcher, Watts Humphrey has personally helped dozens of organizations go “from the brink of chaos to a sound, businesslike operation,” as he wrote in his 2002 book Winning with Software. That description applied to Watts’s experience with IBM, where he worked for 27 years, supervising 4,000 software professionals in 15 laboratories and 7 countries.

Later, as a senior fellow overseeing the process program at Carnegie Mellon ...

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