Operational Excellence

Project Management - Why So Many Failed Projects?

by Brad Egeland, April 14, 2014

This is a tough subject, but a reality nevertheless. We take pride in running the projects that we are tasked with and in working closely with our clients – both internally in our own organization and external project clients outside the company…depending on the industry and type of projects we are leading. But success is still hard to attain. And we can even successfully deploy a project and still have it be considered a failure...possibly because we missed the budget or missed deadlines or the client wasn’t happy with how things went for some reason or another.

I have surveyed project managers and PM executives and read about other surveys as well. Some findings show that as many as 74% of all projects fail to some degree or another. You’d think we would have learned by now how to always get it right. But there are just too many variables to really do that – and you never see the same ones in each engagement. It’s usually a never-ending cycle of suprises biting us in the ‘you know where’ that we should have known about from past experiences or discussions with others but we just didn’t see coming. And while software can solve some issues, software cannot solve the real people issues of project management.

Over the past 20 years I’ve run a lot of projects large and small, formal and informal. And looking back, I’d have to say by my own criteria that at least 20% of them were failures to some degree. Some were major flops. I had one specific project that I took over from another project manager (so I guess it wasn’t always ‘mine’) - it was a technical implementation for a large government agency. It went so poorly for a couple of reasons that the client actually pulled the plug after spending $1.25 million dollars on it. That one was a failure by more than just my own strict criteria.

From my own perspective, I would like to discuss why I think most project failures happen. And after reading this, I would really like to hear your feedback about project failures and why you think they happen (and how they can be avoided). Hopefully, by putting our collective heads together we can stop a couple of upcoming project failures – and maybe even save a couple of jobs in the process.

So, here’s my list of the top reasons I see – or have experienced myself - for project failure:

Lack of client involvement

Keeping the client engaged can sometimes be a problem. They have their ‘real’ work to do and they’ve charged you with this effort. But they have assignments, too. And you usually need information and participation from them to make the project work. Keep them involved on weekly calls. Assign them small info-gathering tasks when there’s nothing for them to do. Don’t allow long gaps in between the things you request from them. Make things up – anything to keep them continually engaged even if it’s to a small degree. If you don’t do this you can lose them for long periods of time and that’s not good for you or the project.

Poor or incomplete requirements

Requirements are the lifeblood of the project. Don’t take the initial client requirements and run with them because I’ve learned that 110% of the time they are not accurate or detailed enough. Only the foolish project manager fails to ask more questions and dig deeper. Bad requirements up front mean re-work later on. And there’s no guarantee that the client will ‘own’ that as their mistake. They are just as likely to point the finger at the leader of the operation – and that’s you. And that means a big ‘F’ for failure. Slow things down, document requirements, and nail down the real issues before starting the work.

Lack of communication or miscommunication

Communications is critical on projects and probably the most important task the project manager does throughout the entire engagement. My team members always tell me that they get more emails from me than any other project manager they’ve worked for. I may fall short in other areas sometimes, but this is one area that I do know I excel in. And I’ve rarely had communication issues with clients. But it takes effort and initiative.

If the client feels that they are not being informed, one of two things will happen. They’ll either sit on it till the end of the engagement and be an unsatisfied client (not good) or they’ll go to your senior management and ask that you be replaced on the project (really not good). The client is rarely good at pointing this out to you because they often don’t see the underlying communication problem – it manifests itself as other things to them. Communicate well, often, and honestly with the client and you won’t have this problem.

Quality control issues

Delivering bad products to the client is a quick way to fail. Whether it’s a typo-filled document deliverable or a bug-ridden end solution, the client is never going to be happy with a less than quality product being handed to them. Peer review everything that passes from your teams hands to the client. Test and re-test. Just make sure that you are providing a quality product in the end.

Call for feedback

This list could go on and on. So many variables go into each project – many of which we have no control over. Please think about failures you’ve experienced or witnessed and share your thoughts on how these could be avoided in the future.


Get Exclusive
Members-Only Content

Subscribe to the Workamajig blog