A project is considered a failure when it does not meet the expectations of sponsors and other key stakeholders. This can be determined by a variety of factors, including cost overruns, missed deadlines, negative impacts on business operations, and damage to the company’s reputation. These symptoms can all be indicators that a project is not being delivered as intended and is therefore considered a failure. It is important for organizations to carefully monitor the progress of projects and address any issues that arise in order to avoid failure. Common causes of project failure include:
Undefined or open ended acceptance criteria.
Architecture And Design
Architecture and design that fails to support requirements or that is so problematic that it delays the project.
Incorrect or undocumented assumptions.
The project fails to deliver the benefits stated in its business case. In some cases, projects that deliver to cost, time and specifications are widely perceived as a failure because benefits fall short of promises made by the sponsor.
Big Bang Adoption
Successful projects typically ship often. Large launches that have significant impact to processes tend to fail.
A project that runs out of funding in the middle due to a lack of financial commitment.
Failure to control the project budget resulting in loss of financial confidence in the project and the need for an audit.
Business Technology Alignment
Implementing a technology that the business doesn’t need or implementing a business requirement without considering technology. For example, launching a new product without considering the need to integrate into customer management and billing systems.
Change control issues and overhead. For example, a constant stream of change requests may distract the project team from meeting baseline commitments.
Under-communicating such as burying important information in documentation instead of communicating it verbally.
A budget and timeline that lack reserves for the inevitable issues that projects face.
Management of issues when they occur. A project that quickly clears issues is far more likely to succeed than one that endlessly deliberates with each issue.
Costs that exceed estimates.
An attempt to speed a project up by adding more resources. Known to be a failure prone approach but organizations tend to do it anyway.
Analysis of data is a fundamental project planning step that’s occasionally neglected. In some cases, high impact data issues aren’t noticed until launch.
Due diligence is a basic level of effort and care that’s expected of an organization or professional. Its neglect can cause serious project issues.
Engagement And Morale
A project team that is overworked or mistreated may have low engagement and poor morale. In some cases, poor morale is caused by a series of project failures. This can become a vicious cycle whereby project failures decrease morale causing more project failures.
Accurate estimates for large projects are something of a rarity. As such, padding estimates is a common practice that may improve a project’s chance of succeeding.
Sufficient support at the executive level improves a project’s chance of success. In some cases, a single executive can throw up enough roadblocks to derail a project even when others support it.
The executive sponsor plays a key role in championing a project and pushing through issues. When this doesn’t happen, a project may fail.
An approach or requirement that isn’t properly validated that turns out to be impossible or highly impractical.
Fixed price contract projects are subject to a variety of problems. They tend to result in an adversarial relationship whereby the client pushes the vendor hard on every point in the contract and the vendor pushes hard against any changes. This results in a number of factors that may destroy the project such as refusals to accept deliverables and inability to implement change requests at a reasonable price.
Stakeholders who don’t have the project properly reflected in their goals for performance evaluation.
Information security is a critical component of corporate governance. As such, incorporating security into designs, testing and validations is basic due diligence. Failure to address information security may result in a project being halted by corporate governance bodies. In the worst case, a project creates a vulnerability that results in a security incident and reputational damage to an organization.
The complexity of integrating organizations, processes and systems is often underestimated and a common cause of project failure.
Issues that are covered up or mismanaged.
Lack of a strongly committed and active leader who has the authority or influence to advance a project in the face of obstacles. In many cases, a strong technical leader with a solid architectural vision also greatly improves a project’s chances of success.
A fixed price contract with a price below the vendor’s likely costs. Gives the vendor pressure to cut corners, overprice change requests and assign low cost resources.
Market conditions such as a recession or the release of an innovative product by a competitor may lead to a sudden decline in commitment to a project as its business case starts to look less realistic.
Project management methodology lapses such as a lack of risk management. For example, executives may impose shortcuts or an organization may lack mature project management capabilities.
Metrics And Measures
Project metrics that fail to represent the project in a balanced and realistic way. For example, a project dashboard that is somehow completely green when there are critical issues.
Mission & Vision
A project that lacks a mission and vision as motivating factors. People want to know what a project is trying to achieve.
A well communicated narrative that clearly illustrates the urgent business need for a project can improve commitment and reduce resistance to change. If a project doesn’t clearly present its own narrative, a narrative may develop in the realm of rumor and complaints. When a project is widely viewed as a mistaken strategy people may try to derail it.
Missing non-functional requirements.
Projects that engage operations too late or fail to establish or meet operational acceptance criteria.
Deployment of a project to an organization that lacks the capabilities required to operate it.
It’s common for optimism bias to influence things such as requirements, estimates and designs in the early stages of a project.
A project that’s inconsistent with the values, ethics, norms, habits and expectations of its organization is likely to be rejected or derailed.
Overtime can be effectively used to overcome project issues. However, when it’s overused and mandatory it can severely impact morale.
In some cases, projects are detached from performance management to the extent that low performance isn’t handled and exceptional performance isn’t rewarded. In many cases, performance management is administered by functional managers who may not collect or consider feedback for project work.
Politics between stakeholders can lead to inefficient decision making, irrational approaches, secrecy and resistance to change.
A project that fails to adhere to organizational processes such as budget approvals, financial reporting, audits or technology compliance reviews.
A project that skips steps in procurement resulting in poor vendor selection or compliance issues.
Coordination problems with related projects such as failed dependencies.
Perhaps the greatest risk factor for project failure is project complexity. Projects that are decomposed into small work packages that are continually integrated and shipped are far more likely to be successful than projects that work with large releases.
Constraints such as hard deadlines often generate significant risks that set a project up for failure from the start.
Stakeholders including core team members commonly develop expectations that are out of line with project realities. In many cases, these are incorrectly assumed to be common sense or self evident. Invalid expectations can cause a broad range of project issues related to requirements, designs, deliverables and acceptance criteria.
Governance that is unwilling or slow to step in to handle issues of accountability or to clarify ground rules for decision making.
Factors such as low quality deliverables and poorly constructed test cases.
Requirements that are unclear, open-ended or contradictory. In many cases, requirements are validated individually without a sanity check or strong owner who ensures they make sense as a cohesive set.
The risk that remains after you treat risk.
Resistance To Change
The general tendency for people to resist change, particularly when they aren’t engaged. Resistance to change can manifest itself as open opposition to a project or passive aggressive actions that attempt to derail it.
Resources who are over allocated on the project, by their functional manager or both.
Return On Investment
In some cases, the return on investment presented in a project’s business case is invalidated resulting in declining commitment.
When stakeholders accept significant levels of risk it becomes likely the project will fail.
Failure to identify significant risks that go unmanaged until they cause an issue.
Risk management as a one time activity that fails to control risks from new sources such as change requests.
Roles & Responsibilities
Unclear or poorly structured accountability and responsibility for decisions and work.
When multiple teams are behind schedule but nobody wants to be first to admit it.
Schedule compression is the practice of trying to deliver a project faster using techniques such as fast tracking and crashing. It typically puts a project at greater risk of failure.
An error in a project schedule such as an invalid critical path.
Uncontrolled change or continuous growth in scope.
A new risk that results from efforts to avoid, mitigate, transfer or share risk.
Secrecy And Subterfuge
A lack of open information sharing between stakeholders or between project leaders and working level teams.
Set Up To Fail
A project that has been intentionally designed to fail as a political strategy.
Missing stakeholders that need to be consulted.
Aloof stakeholders who fail to fulfill their role or who develop wild expectations due to a lack of communication such as skipping meetings.
A stakeholder who takes a dominant role in the project potentially shutting out other voices that have a more critical stake in the project.
A project that is based on someone’s personal vision instead of organizational goals and strategy.
Subject Matter Experts
A lack of expert advice in a critical area such as architecture or security.
Failure of a key technology component.
Problems with a technology platform can make deliverables late and result in quality issues. In some cases, a project budget fails to anticipate the costs associated with a particular platform such as the need for highly specialized resources.
Training And Development
Training failures related to the project team or end users.
Failure to manage a vendor.
A poor relationship with a vendor can result in severe issues and low productivity.
A project that becomes an escalating commitment as new money is spent to try to recover sunk costs. Has the potential to turn a minor failure into an impressive one.
Tactical actions that fail to address an issue or that make things worse