Project failure

Since more projects fail than succeed, it’s OK to go ahead and talk about the elephant in the room. After all, we can all benefit from each other’s failure stories and learn lessons on how to deal with failures and possibly avoid them.A survey that I personally conducted on PM frustrations yielded interesting and very telling results on what project managers are reporting as their own top reasons for project failures. Though I conducted the survey nearly three years ago, no changes in project management have been significant enough to budge anything on the list reported to me. Since these are still obvious trouble spots on many projects, lets examine further…

1. Poor requirements.

Bad or incomplete requirements – which was reported by 38% of survey respondents as their top reason for project failures – can be extremely damaging to any project. I’ve always said that detailed – and accurate – requirements are the lifeblood of the project. Many project customers come into the project engagement with their own set of requirements but they must be recognized for what they are. At best they are usually just high-level requirements and not anywhere near the detail needed from which to build a solution. And sometimes they aren’t pointing at the real need. It’s up to the project team to dig deeper and verify the real problem or need after examining the business processes and meeting with the subject matter experts (SMEs) and eventual end users.

2. Inadequate communication.

Poor communication – which was reported by 19% of respondents as their top reason for project failures – is #2 on the list. I may sound like a broken record – but I always say that communication is the top responsibility of the project manager. A PM who lacks other skills or is a relative newbie can make a lot happen till they learn the rest as long as they possess good communication skills. Ideally, we set the course for planned / expected communication paths on the project at project kickoff and create a project communication plan to document that for all to follow and be accountable to. And the PM must be the key communication point throughout the engagement.

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3. Insufficient planning.

Poor planning by the delivery team – noted by 12% of respondents as their top reason – is a penchant for disaster, especially on long term, complex projects or projects where the team is entering into uncharted territory. The project manager must ensure that enough time and money is allocated in the project schedule and budget for those critical early planning phases no matter who is pushing back – be it the customer or executive management. That’s when critical discovery work is performed matching business processes and project requirements, planning documents are created that lay the groundwork for the rest of the project, and the project schedule takes on the full, detailed shape of the project ensuring that proper tracking and oversight can happen the rest of the way.

4. Lack of customer engagement.

Lack of customer involvement – noted by 10% of respondents as their top reason for project failures – comes in at #4 on the list. While not the most critical need on shorter term projects that are well laid out and have very detailed requirements, customer engagement is still very important and it is absolutely necessary on higher dollar and more complex projects. Customers are needed for decision-making, requirements and business need explanations throughout the design and development stage, and they must be ready and involved during user acceptance testing (UAT) to ensure that a usable end solution is rolled out to their own end users. Many project managers have reported extreme frustration over their project suffering as a result of a gross lack of customer participation. In order to help ensure proper customer engagement, that tone and commitment must be set at project kickoff time and maintained throughout with weekly status meetings, regular formal communications, and project tasks specifically assigned to customer sponsors and staff to ensure their involvement and accountability.


While these four reasons topped the list totaling 79% of the responses, there are always other reasons and certainly more detailed variations of the ones I’ve presented above. Please feel free to share your thoughts on these and others you’ve experienced and how you’ve dealt with project issues as you work to turn them in to success stories.

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