Project Failure

Project failure has always been a hot topic; many organizations have come a very long way to define the root causes of project failure hoping to reduce the increasing rates of project failure.  Arras People have recently released the 2010 Project Management Benchmark Report that has been conducted to understand how the recession has impacted the Programme and Project Management community in UK. The report featured a project failure section where the respondents had been asked to select the top three reasons (out of a possible ten reasons) for project failure in their own work experiences.  The results have proven that initiating phase is the highest contributor to project failure with a percentage that reaches up to 47%, this in fact emphasizes the importance of portfolio management or in other words doing the right things versus doing the things right.

The above pie chart depicts the percentage of each reason of project failure, in this article I will talk about each reason and suggest what would be a preventive action for these project failure reasons

Lack of executive support

The gap between project managers and executives has always been there; often there are times when an executive is made the project sponsor without enough knowledge of the project or basic knowledge of how the project manager works. The issue with executives is that they are always busy and do not have enough time to support the project, they also want to hear good news only. The project manager will most likely  find themselves alone; wrestling with the project issues, stakeholders conflicts, lack of cooperation from resource managers, system users, team members, and other support departments. Support has to come from the top to make the project manager’s life easier and to maximize the likelihood of success, the project sponsor has to study the project charter and have full understanding of each and every section, as soon as the charter is formally accepted and signed by the sponsor, the sponsor has to start supporting the project manager by sending a formal notice to all stakeholders asking them to give full support to the project manager. This can lead to great results in organizations that are not projectized; executive support has to be continuously given to empower the project manager during all project stages and has to be on the agenda of steering committee meetings. The project sponsor should also have basic understanding of project management and be equally ready for good and bad news.

Incomplete Requirements

The issue with IT projects specifically is that there is a high level of uncertainty associated with building a new system or even revamping an existing one. The product of the project will start to take form and get clearer as the project moves towards completion, based on this fact, business users who determine project requirements will face difficulty at the beginning stages of requirements gathering and capture. This issue will jeopardize the maturity of the project requirements and will make users change their minds as they have more insight of what the final product would look like. The project manager has to alleviate this pain by following a robust requirements analysis process, and to build a consensus among conflicting stakeholders from the beginning in order to avoid drastic changes during late project stages. The project manager has to help stakeholders understand what will be delivered by using prototypes and conducting a proof of concept.

Expectations not set / managed

Different stakeholders can perceive the project in completely different ways, often stakeholders have fancy expectations of the project; expectations can be related to any aspect of the project such as duration, cost, or quality. If expectations are not clearly set from the beginning, the project is likely to be influenced by the power of a key stakeholder who can easily get the project cancelled. Setting expectations will help the project manager anticipate and understand the stakeholders’ attitudes, demands, and actions; however, setting expectations is only the first step of the process. As soon as expectations have been set and preliminary conflicts have been resolved, the project manager has to monitor the expectations of the stakeholders. It is the accepted norm in projects that deviation from the initially agreed expectations will happen and the project manager is fully expected to take action to direct the stakeholders in the right direction again. A direction that is consistent with the goals, objectives, and the initial business issue.

Scope Creep

Scope creep is one of the biggest project failure reasons; it is an inevitable fact that is associated with most projects. Scope creep results from uncontrolled changes that are usually minor but eventually will increase the cost of the projects. Scope creep is also associated with poor requirements definition or changes that are not aligned with the main goal of the project. The project should have a robust change management process that can embrace minor and major changes; ideally all changes have to be studied and impacts on project cost, time, risk, and quality have to be assessed. A decision then has to be taken by the change control board to either approve or reject the change. Gold Plating is another form of scope creep where some fancy changes are added by the project team to indulge stakeholders; unfortunately scope creep and gold plating are two sides of the same coin, as the customer can easily reject the extra features given. The project manager has to promote the culture of change management and protect the boundaries of the project to always be consistent with the project charter.

Project / Organization not aligned

Selecting the right project is one of the most critical success factors; the right project does not have to be the most profitable one, but it has to be aligned with the vision of the organization. If the project is not consistent with the strategy of the organization, it will face many challenges to get the attention of everyone in the organization, and the project is very likely to stumble. In contrast if the project is trying to solve a core business issue that will deliver value to the customers and users; support and ownership is very much expected from all stakeholders. Organizations have to move at a slow pace in the early project stages and to unhesitatingly ignore the projects that are not aligned with the vision.

Lack of Resources

Recessionary times have changed the way organizations work; projects are challenged with less resources, stricter deadlines, fancier expectations, and smaller budgets. Working in a weak matrix environment makes the issues worse where resources are shared among more than one project and priorities are often defined by the functional manager. The project manager will face big challenges to secure resources and focus attention on their project.  The project manager has to employ his soft skills in order to gain resource commitments and to seek executive support when negotiation does not lead to a win-win situation.

Technology Issues

The main issue with IT projects is the uncertainty associated with technology; selecting wrong or new technology, incapable system integrators, and inadequate product are all reasons of technology issues. Vendors usually tout their products and technologies and the buyer does not realize this until the peak point of build phase is reached; touting products is often referred to as “marketecture”. In order to avoid falling in the marketecture trap the project team has to conduct robust due diligence and engage with vendors to present similar case studies, proof of technology, proof of concept, and to select a time tested technology. The project team has to always select the best of class rather than best of breed.

Lack of User Involvement

Working in silos is not a practical option for projects; system users will be surprised the first time they see the system and so it is always smarter to get them involved as early as possible to avoid surprises and major changes that may be requested to meet their expectations. Prototypes and mockups are great options to set expectations and get early feedback, the project manager can then plan interim alpha and beta releases and gain feedback from users.

Poor Planning

The old adage tells us if you “fail to plan you are planning to fail”, poor planning is a result of; lack of subject matter expertise, lack of time and cost estimation experience, failing to identify risks, dependencies, stakeholders, communication and quality needs, or managing expectations. The planning stage of the project has to be taken seriously and many iterations have to be planned to revise the project management plan as more information becomes available. Consulting team members and subject matter experts during planning will ensure the team’s buy-in and commitment.

Inexperienced PPM People

PPM practitioners can themselves be the main project failure reason due to issues such as lack of education and/or experience, or adopting improper management style. It is very difficult to speak about failure and to admit accountability for failure, and maybe this is reflected in the results of the report with only 4% of professionals believing that they may be the root cause of project failure through lack of experience.

Accountability without Authority

62% of private sector project manager respondents said they were not in a position to influence a different outcome to the project, rising to 72% in the public sector. Authority is one of the classic issues of project management; it does not seem fair that project managers are deemed accountable for the project failure without having authority to control the project and to influence stakeholders. The project sponsor should understand the challenges associated with the project manager’s role and to delegate his authority to the project manager in order to lead the project to completion. Projects will be more successful only when project managers stop being stigmatized by stakeholders as unauthorized.


The Arras People’s survey results emphasizes that many projects exhibit failure symptoms before they are even kicked off and during planning stage. Doing the right things and doing things right is the key success factor and the project has to be a good fit in the organization’s strategy. Planning has to be given more attention, and project managers need to receive more support and delegated authority from project sponsors to overcome project failure rates.


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