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13 common reasons for project failure

Project Failure | Introduction…

Any quick search in Google will inform that the vast majority of projects fail. And for those who are ‘experienced’ in project management will also know the hard road they have to tread – after all being experienced usually just means learning from failure. In fact, even those who are not in a transformation role will be aware that the vast majority of projects do not land – that is why many people in organisations particularly operational people become tired of change. It’s not the change their tired of necessarily, its the false change.

Though the reasons for project failure vary there are common pitfalls to watch out for and some are even easily avoidable with the right application.

13 Common Reasons for Project Failure

Reason 1Lack of clear objectives

If a project has undefined goals, or it is unclear what they are, how can they be achieved?

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Following the Project Lifecycle and particularly ensuring the Define  Stage is followed
  2. Utilisation of setting SMART Goals

Reason 2 – Poor Project Management discipline

Though Project Management approaches differ – from Prince2, to PMI to APM – what they all have in common is set structure. This structure is usually based on years of experience and pulls in experts from industry to develop. However, in our experience the disciplined approach is almost always missing at least in part within projects or certainly within wider programme activity.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Adhere to Project Management best practices 
  2. Utilise resources such as (well we would recommend that one…)
  3. Tailor the governance to suit the needs of your project and organisation
  4. Re-use existing organisation material. If there is a set template for producing project plans utilise it. Don’t waste time creating from scratch, you can always enhance an existing one
  5. Utilise Project Management Software. The software alone wont make for success, it is how the project utilises it, but the right software can streamline, free-up time for the important doing and ensure that flags and escalations are called out. It also helps to ensure the right project management methodology is being followed.

Reason 3 – Project Manager lacks experience or capability

The Project Manager is a key resource, which is why in a study 97% of companies rated their Project Managers as critical to success. What is shocking then is that only 44% of Project Managers are certified. Being certified isn’t a guaranteed route to success – but it sure helps.

Some ways you can support your self or project to avoid:

  1. Become certified. Choose the methodology which best suits your industry and location. In the UK Prince2 is heavily deployed (as developed by the UK Government) in the US PMI (Project Management Institute) is more widely recognised. As mentioned above APM (Association for Project Management) is a chartered body for project management.
  2. Utilise the right project manager for the role – wider experiences that the project manager has. Though many parts of project management are transferable being well versed in a set field will help to utilise past experience. For example the project environment within a healthcare setting will be fundamentally different to one in construction. The same can be true for projects which transcend country boundaries.
  3. Provide support or seek support. As a project manager seek out a mentor, someone who has been there and done it before who can help to guide you through your delivery.
  4. Another shameless plug to keep learning and refresh your expertise with

Reason 4 – Lack of customer engagement or understanding

Ultimately the project should be delivering for the customer whether an external, internal or regulatory customer. Therefore the project must ensure that the deliverables are being produced to meet the customers requirements. 

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Develop a customer communication plan – understand who their senior stakeholders are
  2. Maintain an open dialogue with your customer throughout the project. Set and communicate expectations with your customer. If a deliverable is delayed be open and talk about the resolution to get back on-track
  3. Ensure the customers requirements are clearly understood in the Define stage
  4. Have in place an effective change governance approach and balance the requirements from the customer with the project boundaries. Remember, not all customer feedback can (or should be incorporated) use the open dialogue to have this discussion.

Reason 5 – A loose mandate

A loose mandate could be where the executive team are not fully signed-up to the project or provide ‘false’ assurances to the project.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Maintain an open dialogue with the executive stakeholders and remove ambiguity on decisions
  2. Be clear in each of you SteerCo sessions what requirements you have from the project. Require additional funds or Z resources – then be clear to call this out. Not halfway through or at the end of communication, right up front within the executive summary
  3. Playback your summary from agreements and follow up so this is recorded within the minutes of the session or on an email chain of the necessary stakeholders
  4. Follow the internal governance – are there additional boards for funding or IT in your organisation. Understand this early to build into the planning and secure the support required – again have this supported noted and circulated within your SteerCo participants.

Reason 6 – No connection to business strategy

No connection business strategy means a project – even if well delivered – will have little benefit to an organisation. An extreme example is a football team training to become astronauts. Sure the fitness and discipline may transcend onto the field of play but ultimately those training specifically for football will be better equipped come match day. 

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Follow the Project Lifecycle approach . During the Justify Stage the third step where the project brief and initial business case are developed seeks to ensure the project has strategic alignment to organisational goals
  2.  Simply do not start a project which is not aligned to strategic goals. If the organisation changes direction during the project then it is right to assess whether or not the project should be continued.

Reason 7 Inadequate resources

This relates to two issues, not having enough resources and not the right type of quality resources.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Follow the Project Lifecycle approach . During the Define Stage we seek out detailed planning which is inclusive of the resources required. Remember we require different types of resources, financial, people and process
  2. Use robust escalation and call out (preferably ahead of resources not being available)
  3. Where you can, detail the impact of not having Z resources. Often there will be a monetary impact associated – either fines from the customer for delays; or delay to benefits for not achieving; or increased operational spend of not delivering. It is a lot harder to refuse the right resources if there is significant financial consequences attached. If you have completed detailed planning up front then assigning a cost here should be easier.

Reason 8 Poor Project Planning (or worse none at all)

The old adage is true fail to plan and plan to fail. Of course having a plan alone is not enough for a successful project and therefore able to avoid failure, but robust considered planning certainly helps.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Take the time for detailed planning
  2. Ensure you have built contingency into the plan. Be positive about what can be achieved but keep this grounded into realism. We have come across senior people who believe nearly everything can be done in a week or two and this is seldom true
  3. Use scenario planning to test ‘what-if’ scenarios – why not try our PERT Calculator
  4. Use risk management principles to help foresee what could happen
  5. Utilise lessons learned – though no two projects are ever the same learning from the past is a tried and tested activity

Reason 9 Measures of Success are undefined (or no measures identified to measure the success)

If success is undefined, then how are you ever going to know if you have achieved success? In this sense, a project could go on forever, and we know the purpose of a project is to transition from A to B and be finite in nature. So this just won’t work.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Ensure the customer requirements are defined
  2. Undertake benefits mapping excercises
  3. Be clear on the stakeholder expectations

Reason 10 Inability to track progress effectively

Inability to track progress is aligned to Reason 9. All projects are track able as they are moving from state A to state B.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Develop Project scorecards which are tracked on a regular basis with a group that encompasses the project, operations, finance and where applicable the end customer
  2. The Steering committee (SteerCo) should act as a place where senior leaders review the projects progress
  3. Track the benefit delivery of the project and not just the functional activities being completed
  4. Engage the business intelligence teams early on so they know what is required from them for the project
  5. Call out as soon as items are going off-track and what resolution is required to get back on track – not getting the support from the operational team? Call it out, don’t wait for it to throw the project off track

Reason 11 Risks are poorly managed (or not even identified)

Sometimes this can be the most frustrating reason as early identification and subsequent management is all preventable

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Define the projects risk management strategy within the Define Stage of the project
  2. Develop a risk register and engage stakeholders in the assessment and treatment of these risks
  3. Hold people to account and follow up on the risks:
    1. Are all risks identified
    2. Do they all have a risk owner
    3. Do all risks have mitigation in place?
    4. Has the individual risk response been identified

Reason 12 Stakeholders are not effectively engaged and supported

In most cases this is the number 1 reason for project failure, after all projects are often seen as a success if viewed that way by their stakeholders.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Active involvement of stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle
  2. Utilise tools such as Stakeholder Mapping, RACI and RASCI
  3. Develop a robust communication plan and execute the plan

Reason 13 Inability to manage change

Often this is related to the People Side of Change (PSoC). A brilliant technical capability could have been deployed i.e. a new distribution facility – however the consumers of the new capability are not on board, have had a poor training experience and are simply resisting the transition of the change.

Some ways you can support yourself or project to avoid:

  1. Engage the recipients of the change at an early stage have them actively engaged within the design and not just as recipients of change (Done To)
  2. Understand who the ‘key brokers’ are. Identify a method to get these on-side early on


Though these are 13 common reasons for project failure, projects often fail for more than one reason. So having an overview across the board can help to prevent your project from failure.

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