Project Failure

Project Failure

Project Failure Jonathan Poland

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:

Acceptance Criteria

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.

Benefits Realization

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.

Budget Commitment

A project that runs out of funding in the middle due to a lack of financial commitment.

Budget Control

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

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.

Contingency Reserve

A budget and timeline that lack reserves for the inevitable issues that projects face.

Corrective Actions

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.

Cost Variance

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.

Data Quality

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

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.

Executive Commitment

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.

Executive Sponsor

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

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.

Goal Setting

Stakeholders who don’t have the project properly reflected in their goals for performance evaluation.

Information Security

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.

Integration Complexity

The complexity of integrating organizations, processes and systems is often underestimated and a common cause of project failure.

Issue Management

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.

Loss Leader

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

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.

Non-Functional Requirements

Missing non-functional requirements.

Operational Acceptance

Projects that engage operations too late or fail to establish or meet operational acceptance criteria.

Operational Capabilities

Deployment of a project to an organization that lacks the capabilities required to operate it.

Optimism Bias

It’s common for optimism bias to influence things such as requirements, estimates and designs in the early stages of a project.

Organizational Culture

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.

Performance Management

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.

Political Infighting

Politics between stakeholders can lead to inefficient decision making, irrational approaches, secrecy and resistance to change.

Process Compliance

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.

Program Management

Coordination problems with related projects such as failed dependencies.

Project Complexity

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.

Project Constraint

Constraints such as hard deadlines often generate significant risks that set a project up for failure from the start.

Project Expectations

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.

Project Governance

Governance that is unwilling or slow to step in to handle issues of accountability or to clarify ground rules for decision making.

Quality Control

Factors such as low quality deliverables and poorly constructed test cases.

Requirements Quality

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.

Residual Risk

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.

Resource Overallocation

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.

Risk Acceptance

When stakeholders accept significant levels of risk it becomes likely the project will fail.

Risk Identification

Failure to identify significant risks that go unmanaged until they cause an issue.

Risk Management

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.

Schedule Chicken

When multiple teams are behind schedule but nobody wants to be first to admit it.

Schedule Compression

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.

Scheduling Errors

An error in a project schedule such as an invalid critical path.

Scope Creep

Uncontrolled change or continuous growth in scope.

Secondary Risk

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.

Stakeholder Analysis

Missing stakeholders that need to be consulted.

Stakeholder Commitment

Aloof stakeholders who fail to fulfill their role or who develop wild expectations due to a lack of communication such as skipping meetings.

Stakeholder Salience

A stakeholder who takes a dominant role in the project potentially shutting out other voices that have a more critical stake in the project.

Strategy Alignment

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.

Technology Components

Failure of a key technology component.

Technology Platform

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.

Vendor Management

Failure to manage a vendor.

Vendor Relationships

A poor relationship with a vendor can result in severe issues and low productivity.

White Elephant

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

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