Top 10 Reasons Why Projects Fail

As a project management consultant at JPStewart Associates, I have discovered that many projects fail outright. And further, that many of these failures occur for the same reasons. So I have compiled a list of 10 reasons why projects fail, largely from my own experience.

I’ve also tried to share some ideas about how each of these problems can be overcome. Read on to see how defining clear objectives, undertaking commonsense project planning, exercising good leadership skills, and setting reasonable goals can turn project failure can be turned into project success.

Top 10 Reasons Why Projects Fail

1. Scope Creep

Project scope is everything that you are going to do and conversely, not going to do. So once you’ve defined the objectives of project work, usually via a Work Breakdown Structure, you need to freeze it and zealously guard against unplanned changes.

Notably, project plan changes initiated via a change management board are ok, since then the project management professional can issue a new schedule, conduct risk estimation, and budget plan around new objectives as needed. Otherwise, you will surely miss your target deliverables, and the scope creep will lead to project failure, making both the team and customer unhappy.

Read more: The Discovery Phase: Is It Important?

2. Overallocated Resources

Going hand in hand with scope creep, often there are too few resources working on too many failed projects at the same time. In conjunction with that, many managers don’t seem to have a grip on what their resources are doing all the time.

Project team members are left to figure out for themselves what projects they should be working on and when. It’s better for managers to meet weekly to discuss resource usage, perhaps using project management software to stay on track.

3. Poor Communication

Many team members on a project will know the project manager only through their (often poor)communication. Teams will know them by how their voice comes across over the Zoom call, or by how well-written their emails are.

By striving to define unclear objectives and communicate goals and processes to teams, the project manager strengthens team collaboration. If the project manager, and other organization leadership, are not clear, unambiguous communicators, then chaos, confusion, and failure will ensue.

4. Bad Stakeholder Management

Stakeholders and company leadsership have a vested interest in the project — for the good or ill of the project. It is the project manager’s job to not only identify all stakeholders, but know how to manage and communicate with them in a timely fashion. This is why developing a communication plan is an integral part of avoiding project management failure.

Read more: Why Is Executive Involvement in Projects so Important?

5. Unreliable Estimates

Project managers rely on work estimates in their planning, but estimates are very often just guesstimates by project team members who are trying to calculate duration of tasks based on how long it took them last time.

This may turn out to be totally accurate or may be completely wrong. If they’re wrong, poor estimation leads to a flawed schedule, unachievable objectives, and increased risk — and ultimately, project failure. Historical records kept between projects help project teams to refine their goals.

6. No Risk Management

Every project is unique and hence, project management is full of uncertainty. When we try to qualify and quantify that uncertainty, we call it risk. It is incumbent upon the project manager to proactively anticipate things that might go wrong; this is why proper risk management leads to success.

Once they have identified risks, then the project manager and the team can decide during project planning on how to mitigate and avoid those specific risks, should they occur.

Read more: Best Risk Management Software for 2021

7. Unsupported Project Culture

I was once asked to consult for a company and discovered that a complex project was being handled by an untrained secretary using 20 Excel spreadsheets.

In this case of project failure, project sponsors and leadership clearly did not fully understand what it took to manage a project — either in project management software or using trained personnel. This form of failure is not easily solvable, because it requires education of senior management and a cultural shift.

8. The Accidental Project Manager

This is similar to, but not exactly the same as unsupported project culture. In this instance of project failure, what typically happens is that a technical person (software developer, chemist, etc.) succeeds at the job.

Based on that success, this person gets promoted to project manager and is asked to manage technical projects. The problem is they often don’t get training in project management, and may well lack the social and leadership skills the job calls for. And so they flounder and often fail despite previous successes.

This is not to say that only certified PMPs can be good project managers, but training is essential. At the very least, all new PMs should be familiar with setting accurate project goals and objectives, developing project schedules, people management, and proper project implementation. And they should first be assigned small projects to better hone their skills.

Read more: Creative Projects vs Technical Projects: What They Are, and How to Run Them

9. Lack of Team Planning Sessions

This failure scenario is easily avoided, as there is no more effective way to kick off a project than to have the entire team come together for a planning session. This enables everyone to not only work together on project artifacts — such as project schedules and WBS — but also to develop teamwork and buy into the project management process.

10. Monitoring and Controlling

Many project managers will create a schedule and never (or rarely) update it. Or if they do, they’ll just fill in percent done, which is an arbitrary number often picked out of the air by team members.

It’s no surprise, then, when missed deadlines are rampant and projects fail. Avoid this failure by recording project management actuals, such as date started, work accomplished, and estimate of remaining work. This is another area where project management software is a lifesaver.

Read more: 10 Must-Have Project Management Skills New PMs Overlook

Project Management Software Can Help

Using project management software to manage communication, task management, and scheduling will keep managers and team members on top of each phase of a project. Easy access to collaboration tools and dynamic task updates, as well as organized resource allocation, are just some of the benefits that one of the following tools can provide.

Though project management software does not remove the possibility of project failure, it helps teams to proactively prepare for each successful project, and eliminates some of the reasons why projects fail.

Jim Stewart

Since 2003, as a principal of JP Stewart Associates, Jim has been engaged in multiple endeavors including consulting, training and mentoring. A PMP since 2001 and Certified Scrum Master since 2013, he provides PMP Prep training both in public and private in-house sessions.