12 Reasons Why Projects Fail & Solutions for Them


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The big question everyone wants to know the answer to during a project retrospective is “Why did this project fail?” As a project kicks off, the common goal is to achieve a smooth and seamless execution and aim for the best outcome. At times, the project changes course due to unexpected business decisions that can negatively affect all remaining work milestones. To know the signs to look for to prevent a project failure is the responsibility of the project manager.

Read on to know examples of events that lead to project failure and ideas you can incorporate to successfully avoid it from happening.

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How Often Do Projects Fail?

Project teams don’t expect to fail, but failure can sometimes happen, usually because of ill-defined projects.

How likely projects fail is a point of debate. Project management professionals claim that projects fail up to 50% of the time according to a recent study by the Project Management Institute (PMI) on project management failure statistics. This number, however, is difficult to prove. And whether a project is a complete failure or just could have been done better or managed differently is an opinion held by project stakeholders.

Historically, the PMI conducts surveys and hosts research to understand project success and failure rates. The statistics overall indicate that while the majority of projects meet their original goals, a significant number still face challenges, such as scope creep, budget overruns, and timeline delays. For example, an estimated ⅓ of projects are completed on time and on budget.

Smaller projects tend to be much more successful than large, complex efforts. Companies that don’t use project management software are more likely to miss deadlines and spend more money. Not all organizations prioritize project management, and some admit to undervaluing it.

Conducting a detailed project discovery with the team prior to the start of a project is crucial and your best chance at success. Closely examine all risks and blockers before beginning a project. Understanding what lies ahead gives the project manager, project team, stakeholders, vendors, and the client options and the best plan and flexibility to move forward.

Common Causes of Project Failure

Project failures can be avoided with planning and awareness, as many pitfalls are preventable with prior knowledge. Learn the top reasons behind project failure and see how proactively addressing them boosts project performance.

Undefined Objectives

According to a PMI survey, over 17% of projects fail due to poor planning. Having a clear picture of project goals and objectives, including what is required and what you need to do from the very beginning, is the best strategy. Otherwise, you will find yourself endlessly playing catch-up. Understand what is needed from the start, and do everything you can to avoid losing focus of it.

Lacking a clear outline of the next steps will put the project in reaction mode, and that can turn into chaos quickly. Schedule a meeting with stakeholders at the start to discuss and document their requirements on cost, time, and product quality. Know how you will execute your tasks in order to meet everyone’s expectations.

Example: Skipping or rushing a formal project kickoff meeting with all involved can lead to you being ill-prepared for project tasks or goals.

Unorganized documentation and tracking

Concise project documentation and upkeep is the coordinated responsibility of the project manager and project leads. Tracking work items as milestones is the best way to know if you are meeting deadlines. Proper recording and monitoring of vital project information allows the project manager to identify where resources are needed to complete a project on time.

Example: There isn’t a way to move a project along successfully when important documents are not kept, shared among key people, or are not easy to locate.

Poor leadership

Project leadership is not the sole responsibility of the project manager. Leaders at each management level have a responsibility and investment to ensure the project is successful. Management should not micromanage but provide support to ensure project managers can follow through with the expectations placed upon them. Running a project without solid management support will do more harm than good.

Example: Poor leadership can develop when leaders are not fully engaged because they have too much on their plate and are not fully committed to the initiative.

Failure to define parameters and enforce them

It is imperative for the project manager to be able to work well with the project team and schedule the work in a way that makes the most sense. If and when tasks or goals do not meet the standard, there should be an effort to review and reiterate what is expected, by whom, and by when. Continually review and rank tasks by priority, and assign them to the most proficient project team members for the best work outcome.

Example: Project scope creep resulting from project requirements can change planned deliverables as work progresses.

Inexperienced project managers

Project managers have great responsibility. They bring a certain level of education and experience to the project. It is inevitable that a new and inexperienced project manager will come on board to handle projects.

They may be capable of managing projects, but they need to be the right fit for the project and gain the support from management so they can succeed. Anything less is a recipe for failure. Challenges are good and push boundaries to instigate growth as long as the stretch is not too far out of reach. Inexperienced project managers are, at times, a primary cause of project failure.

Example: Organizational structures with the budget to support good project management and the people who perform it may not exist at a company so they choose another role to put in charge of the work that may not be schooled in the responsibility.

Inaccurate cost estimates

There may be times when your cost estimates are not reflecting the work needed or something has not been accounted for completely. When resources run out, the project stops. Prevent this fail trigger by completing a thorough investigation of cost estimating and double-checking with leads for their sign off on the numbers so the correct resources can be secured before the work starts. 

Example: There is often a challenge with costing work on a project that has not been done before or is outside the normal type of work created.

Inadequate communication across teams

Whether it is between upper management, with the team, among users, or other stakeholders, inadequate or poor communication is a leading cause of project failure. It drives misunderstandings, delays, and misaligned expectations. Everyone should feel free to come forward to express their concerns or give suggestions and be heard, and there should be a stage set or meeting cadence to express this. When everyone is on the same page and the project has transparency, workflow is at an optimum level.

Example: Teams are not aligned on project goals because they don’t know how or when to communicate updates.

Culture and ethics at odds

Company culture should comprise competence, proactiveness, and professionalism. If not, team members will lack the motivation to do their best. When everyone commits to their role and responsibility, they contribute to the successful completion of the project. Diverse teams can create amazing work when project goals and work styles are aligned.

Example: Mismatched work ethics, geographic time zone issues, and language barriers can cloud the common goal and affect outcomes.

Ineffective resource planning

Inadequate resource forecasting is a leading cause of project failure over 20% of the time. When resources are not enough, the imbalance between personnel resources and funding will create competing priorities that affect project execution and delivery. At the start, project managers should understand and confirm how many people are needed and for how long, and they need to schedule those people to be available when needed.

Example: Project failure can occur when there are limited resources or there is an inability to get the resources in place in time due to budget and time constraints.

Disregarding warning signs

When a project is on the verge of failing, warning signs become increasingly obvious. Project managers should take action immediately to save the project. Being able to identify red flags early on and steer clear of them is the responsibility of the project manager, who is tasked with being transparent about issues and sharing them with key team leaders before it is too late to fix the problem.

Example: Missed or delayed deadlines cause rushed work and increase delays, which puts the launch or project end date milestone in jeopardy.

Unclear roles and responsibilities

Projects fail when there is ambiguity regarding team member roles and responsibilities, causing confusion, duplicative efforts, and lack of ownership and accountability. Roles should be defined at the beginning during the project kickoff meetings that everyone is required to attend and confirm their responsibilities, contact information, location,and availability.

Example: Duplicative effort by multiple people causing siloed meetings and project tracking errors.

Inflexibility to change

Inability to adapt to changes in requirements, new technology, or external factors results in work that quickly becomes obsolete or irrelevant, especially if the project is long and takes years to complete. While there may be stakeholders and leaders that have been with the company for decades and are used to doing things one way or one speed, they must be open to better ways of working. A lot can be learned from new hires based on the latest trends, competition, and advice.

Example: Unwillingness to adopt new processes that increase efficiency because of comfort in “this is how things are always done here”

How Remote Working Has Impacted Project Failure

The new culture of working remotely has definitely had an impact on project failure. There are both pros and cons to being able to work from anywhere, and the results of project failure and success in this environment are still being calculated.

Ways remote working teams have made it more likely for projects to fail:

  • An intermix of time zones makes it more difficult to coordinate and address things in a timely manner.
  • There are more distractions and a need for more meetings to get the work moving; not everyone on a team is cut out or equipped for remote work.
  • It becomes harder to keep everyone’s attention when they are not in person and have the ability to mute themselves or turn off their camera to do other things.

Ways remote work has made projects less likely to fail:

  • There are more tools than ever to keep teams connected and accountable.
  • Remote teams have an opportunity to work 24/7 across time zones to speed up progress.
  • Work flexibility creates less burnout for teams when they don’t have commutes and long days sitting in uncomfortable cubicles and office settings.

Tips on How to Avoid Project Failure

Adequate employee training, project management software, solid project planning, and management transparency lead to a successful project.

Finding the right project management software is one of the essential steps to take to keep the project on the right and successful track. Tools that allow users to easily manage tasks like time tracking, cost tracking, and cost estimations help teams learn from failure and eliminate future project failures. 

The bottom line? Projects will fail, but full failure is avoidable. While a 100% success rate isn’t realistic, it’s important to be aware of common project pitfalls in order to give your work the best chance of success. The top cause of project failure outlined in this article will hopefully keep you aware of what to look out for so you  can avoid project management failure altogether and increase the success rate of your next project.

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