30 July, 2018

Project Failure – Why it Happens

No one wants their project to fail. Despite this, project failure is all too common.

So is it Possible to Prevent Project Failure?

It certainly is, and all you need to do is follow all the principles of good Project Management, including foreseeing and acting on all threats.

‘Easier said than done’ you say.


PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

That’s why we have prepared our two-part guide to Project Failure.

This is an updated version of Part 1 of our guide. We’ll publish Part 2 next week. These have been among our most popular and heavily-read articles, so I hope you’ll enjoy them.

It is certainly possible to prevent #project failure. Easier said than done. Yes. But still possible. Click To Tweet
Giant Guide to Project Failure
Giant Guide to Project Failure

We have written a lot of articles (and we’ll continue to do so) on how to make your projects succeed. These articles include:

  1. How to get Better Project Management Results
  2. Seven Vital Project Management Priorities
  3. Project Management Essentials
  4. Ten Critical Things to Learn about Project Management, and
  5. Essential Project Management Rules

So in this bumper article, I want to focus on what goes wrong.

Two-part Analysis

We will split down the reasons for project failure into:

  1. The key ‘Points of Project Failure’ which will alert you to where you need to focus your attention.
    And, under each of these…
  2. Some of the ‘Primary Reasons for Project Failure’ that will alert you to specific actions you can set up and take.


Ten Points of Project Failure

I have observed ten points of project failure. Because there is a lot to say about each, I have had to split this article into two. The first five are in this article, and the next will follow, next week. Let’s just dive in, and get started! Below each Point of Project Failure are examples of primary reasons why projects fail.

– 1 –

Project Definition

Not surprisingly, a lot of your project problems start here with a poor definition of what your project is, and is not. Often this arises because your project’s goals, objectives, or scope are vague and unclear. They may be disconnected from the organization’s priorities, leaving a poor case for change.

Insufficient Clarity of Definition

Too often, project failure starts with an unwillingness to negotiate the detail of project goals, objectives, and scope with key stakeholders. This is either because you are not keen to engage, find negotiation uncomfortable, or fail to nail down the details. The reality is that objective-setting and scoping are as much about what you won’t do, as what you will. Saying ‘no’ is a vital project management skill!

Objective-setting & scoping are as much about what you won't do, as what you will. Saying no is a vital #project mgt skill Click To Tweet

Too little Research

Projects can fail when your team defines the solution before adequate research has validated that it is technically possible… or organizationally desirable. And, of course, have you actively searched for potential unintended consequences? A lot of project failure arises not from what you do, but from the unforeseen consequences of what you do.

A lot of #project failure arises not from what you do, but from the unforeseen consequences of what you do. Click To Tweet

Unrealistic Expectations

People always have unrealistic expectations. If you fail to re-set these, they will determine that your project has failed, even when it meets its goal and objectives fully!

Misalignment with Organization’s Goals, Objectives, Strategy

Where your project fails to align with the needs of your organization, successful delivery inevitably means project failure. Someone ought to start a course called ‘How to be a skilled project manager and still fail 101’. Keep watching.

Creating a Robust Project Definition

If you need to get this right, do take a look at our Project Manager’s Project Definition Kit – an innovative course and resource kit, so you can take a jumble of ideas, needs, and requests and turn it into a well-defined project.

Articles you might like

– 2 –


Governance is hardly the most sexy of project management disciplines. So is it any surprise that it rarely gets the attention it deserves? Good governance is a cornerstone of project success, so poor governance inevitably leads to project failure.

Good governance is a cornerstone of #project success, so poor governance inevitably leads to project failure. Click To Tweet

Lack of Governance Structure

It starts simply… You define your project and get going with will and determination. But you fail to set up the governance structure your project needs to assure its success. D’oh! Rule 1: Create a governance structure early on. Rule 2: Tweak and adjust it as you go,so it stays fit for purpose.

You may like these articles:

Lack of Senior Leadership

Senior people fail to give your project the attention it deserves. That leads to a lack of ownership among the top team. And then you find that no one will accept accountability. So, when things do go wrong (and they will), there is nobody prepared to step up and support you fully. One symptom of this that is easy to spot, is an over-reliance on senior level consultants or contractors.

Weak Sponsorship

A specific example of this is the assigned project owner or sponsor failing to discharge their role well. There many flavours of this route to project failure: unwillingness, inability, lack of training, over-commitment, meddling and tinkering, fear… Finding the right sponsor is crucial. So too is it vital that organizations invest in training their project sponsors.

There is a great article called ‘How to Handle a Difficult Project Sponsor [6 Types].

Responsibilities not Clearly Assigned and Accepted

There are more project governance roles than just that of sponsor. But if you fail to identify them, define them, assign them and have them accepted, the foundations of good governance will be weak.

Bad Decision-making

I could write a book (and one day will, I hope) on all the ways decision-making goes wrong. In short, you need the right people, with the best information, following a sound process. Do you have all of those?

Two articles you might like are:

  1. The Essential Guide to Robust Project Decision Making
  2. Rapid Decision Making in Projects: How to Get it Right

Group Think

A common reason for project failure is that decision-making succumbs to ‘Group Think’. Here, divergent opinions are sidelined and ignored, rather than discussed and tested. This can be because harmony is more comfortable than discord, because one person is seen as a trouble maker, or because that one contradictory fact fits best in the ‘too difficult’ bucket. ‘Let’s ignore that, focus on what we agree on, and move on.’ Whoops, there goes your project!

Lack of Oversight

How much attention are objective observers, with authority, paying to your project? Too little is bad, and strangely, too much can be equally bad (it’s just less common).

Too much Focus on Cost

This is the governance group that asks about the cost of everything, but seems to care little about the value of anything. Contract prices are important. But they only matter in the context of the value, the benefits, and the risk.

Lack of Focus on Why

The flip side of too much focus on cost is too little focus on the benefits your project will produce and their value to the business. A ruthless focus on benefits will sort this one out. Project failure is the result of not achieving planned benefits, so you need to plan your benefits, plan benefits realization, and track it relentlessly.

Failure to Secure or Heed Expert Advice

Whoops! I forgot… The high-ups on your project board have years of experience. They are experts on everything. Sadly, there is still some of that attitude in some organizations. Design your governance structure to give a voice to experts with knowledge and objectivity. And set rules that require them to be heard.

– 3 –


Poor planning is too much of a cliche. You’d think it is too obvious to be a common cause of project failure. You’d be wrong. Poor estimating, unrealistic assumptions, and a failure to appreciate the complexity or scale of your project all happen a lot.

Poor Estimating

There is a school of thought (to which I do not subscribe) that estimates are so often wrong, that there is no point. Let’s get it straight: no estimates = no plan = inevitable failure.

Let's get it straight: no estimates = no plan = inevitable failure. Click To Tweet

Once we’ve banked that insight, what remains is the need to estimate well. This means learning the craft, and deploying multiple approaches. the  less familiar, more complex, and higher risk your project is; the more you need to validate estimates using different methods, and different estimators.

Lack of Attention to …or even Interest in Details

‘I’m a big picture person.’ Lots of executives believe that strategic focus is a merit. Which it is, as long as you can focus in on the details of you need to. Where is the devil? Exactly. If you ignore the details, you can miss something important.

Where is the devil? Exactly. If you ignore the details, you can miss something important. Click To Tweet

Underestimating the impact of complexity

Bigger projects rarely scale the way we expect them to. Double the number of deliverables… double the size of your team. Double the size of your team… double the schedule and budget. Wrong, wrong, wrong! A better rule of thumb is that bigger projects scale in the commitment (resource time needed, and budget) as the square of their ambition. If you want your project to achieve twice as much, then don’t double your budget. The number of acitivities and therefore your budget will go up by more like 4x than 2x.

Sound Estimates Over-ruled

We are coming onto politics soon. but this belongs under ‘estimates’. You do your job well, and then someone says no. Your team is coerced into unsustainably aggressive estimates. And now you are committed to either unrealistic timelines, or an unrealistic budget. Or both. Project failure, here you come.

Failure to Recognise that a Plan is a Plan and an Estimate is an Estimate

Plans are not promises, and estimates are not out-turns. If you fail to act on this knowledge, you will set no error bars on your estimates and build no contingency into your plans. One set-back can be all it takes to compromise your project.

You may also like:

– 4 –


If you think project managers need to be above politics, you are wrong. Politics is the destroyer of projects. To avert project failure, you and your sponsor need to be astute political operatives.

Low Management Support

Research reported by John Kotter looks at projects which seek to impose organizational change. If those project have less than 75% of senior managers conspicuously supporting them… they will fail. More than 75% is not a guarantee of project success. It is just a condition of entry.

More than 75% senior management support is not a guarantee of project success. But it is a condition of entry. Click To Tweet

Internal Politics

Put two people in a room, and what will you get? Politics. Everyone has their own agenda. Ad in an organization, those agendas will differ, That’s why the next point of failure we will look at will be stakeholder engagement.

Poorly Managed Conflict

Conflict itself is not bad. In fact, it can be a creative force for good in project problem-solving and decision-making. But, when you fail to manage it well, its power to destroy is awesome.

Articles you may like

– 5 –

Stakeholder Engagement

Rule 6 of my Essential Project Management Rules is that:

Stakeholders will Determine the Success, or Not, of your Project

So, by definition, failure to engage and secure buy-in from your stakeholder is a sure route to project failure.

Poor Management of the Stakeholder Engagement Process

Stakeholder engagement does not just happen. You need to manage the process actively. Identify – Analyse – Plan – Act – Review. It’s a basic discipline that you must follow.

Failure to Set and Manage Expectations

A particular failing is often a mismatch between the stakeholders’ expectations and the plans your project team are working to. Whose fault is that, I wonder?

Poor Communication

Even if you set expectations, another grievous fault is poor communication. In the absence of good information, people fill the gap with gossip, rumour, and speculation. Welcome to stakeholder meltdown.

In the absence of good information, people fill the gap with gossip, rumour, and speculation. Click To Tweet

Wilfully Disengaged or Antagonistic Stakeholders

People will often withdraw from or resist the discomfort of change. They can do this for many reasons. Just make sure that it is not because they feel under-informed, under-valued, or not respected. You cannot be responsible for the choices people make. But you can set the context in which they make those choices.

You cannot be responsible for the choices people make. But you can set the context in which they make those choices. Click To Tweet

Allowing (the wrong) Subset of Stakeholders to Dominate the Agenda and Drive Decision-making

Cliques are bad for all sorts of reasons, so no one subset of your stakeholders should determine your project plan and actions. It’s worse if you let powerful or pushy stakeholders take this kind of control, when they are not representative of the wider stakeholder population.

We have a lot of free Stakeholder Engagement articles here:


Coming Next Week

Next week, we will look at five more Points of Project Failure. These will be:

  1. Resources
  2. Project Management
  3. Testing and Quality
  4. Implementation
  5. External Factors

In addition, if you come back to read that, you will get a chance to download our free eBook, which collates these two articles.

[thrive_link color=’orange’ link=’https://onlinepmcourses.com/reasons-projects-fail/’ target=’_self’ size=’medium’ align=”]Take me to the second part…[/thrive_link]

Alternative Formats

This pair of articles has been so successful, we have created two more-convenient formats for you.

How to Avoid Project FailureVideo Training Version

How to Avoid Project Failure

  • 16 video course modules – 100 minutes of video.
  • Watch anytime, anywhere.
  • Downloadable podcast versions, so you can listen in the car, at the gym, or on the run.
  • Downloadable templates.
  • 6 Extended articles.
  • 2.5 PMI PDUs
  • Guide to Project Turnaround
  • 2.5 hours of project management education
  • Special offers on our core courses and other paid resources.
  • Personal support from your trainer, Dr Mike Clayton. Ask your question: get an answer.

Find out more.

How to Avoid Project FailureKindle eBook Version

How to Avoid Project Failure

Project Failure is all too Common. What are the Reasons for it, and How can You Stop Them?

How to Avoid Project Failure will alert you to the ten points of project failure. And, for each, you’ll learn some of the primary reasons why projects fail.

Buy from Amazon.com / US or Amazon.co.uk / UK.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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