No one wants their project to fail. Despite this, project failure is all too common.
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.
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
We have written a lot of articles (and we’ll continue to do so) on how to make your projects succeed. These articles include:
So in this bumper article, I want to focus on what goes wrong.
We will split down the reasons for project failure into:
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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].
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.
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:
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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:
Next week, we will look at five more Points of Project Failure. These will be:
In addition, if you come back to read that, you will get a chance to download our free eBook, which collates these two articles.Take me to the second part…
This pair of articles has been so successful, we have created two more-convenient formats for you.
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.
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.
Three Kinds of Stupid: Avoid Project Failure | Video06 May, 2019
Ethics: What’s the Code of Conduct for Project Managers?11 Mar, 2019
High Profile Projects: How to Lead a Project with a Massive Public Profile07 Jan, 2019
Ten Project Management Lessons I’ve Learned over the Years
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.