Why Projects Fail

Project management is an art as well as a science, but even the best inventions fail from time-to-time.

Typically a project starts with a detailed plan then progresses through phases till completion, any changes are well understood by the client to be costly and result in delay so a lot of time, in many cases 30% of the project elapsed time is spent in planning.

This process is known as Waterfall and has been developed over many years.  It works well when the project domain is well understood when, for example, building a house or a ship or a motorway.  This kind of project has been run many times building a body of knowledge and experience that means issues are easily identified and remedies well understood.

For business projects this is rarely the case.

The reasons why project fail are many – these are the most common.

  1. Poorly defined project scope
    Houses, ships and motorways are designed in detail before any building can start. Not so much with business projects, on many there is no Architect!
  2. Inadequate risk management
    Most businesses are not in the business of running projects, so have little experience or knowledge on the risk profile. What you don’t know, you can’t manage.
  3. Failure to identify key assumptions
    Knowledge of the detailed workings and processes often exist in more than one head.  That means that assumptions made by the project team are prone to error.
  4. Project managers who lack experience and training
    When there is one!
  5. No use of formal methods and strategies
    Again, if running projects is not a core competency, the tools and methods that help things to go smoothly are in the ‘unconscious incompetence’ category.
  6. Lack of effective communication at all levels
    Obvious, but communication takes time and effort, which are often in short supply when everyone is busy.
  7. Key staff leaving the project and/or company
    And taking their knowledge and critical information with them as it often exists only inside their heads.
  8. Management of expectations
    Expectations are not static they change as the project progresses. Managing those expectations is the key to effective deployment and meeting those expectations at the end of the project is difficult – especially when they weren’t what you started out to meet.
  9. Ineffective leadership
    Keeping the show on the road requires experience and knowledge, if that’s missing, the wheels are likely to come off.
  10. Where are we now?
    The project does not function in isolation. If the current situation is not known in detail, then errors happen and extra effort is required for corrections.  If a full assessment of where we are now is not done, the results are likely to be of limited benefit to the enterprise.
  11. Failure to track requirements
    No business is static. The business environment changes in many ways over time, and that will have a direct impact on the project outcome and how it will deliver effective results.
  12. Failure to track progress effectively
    Just because one day’s work is done does not mean one day’s progress has been made. Requirements could have changed, problems arisen that need rectifying or a million other things.  Progress should be measured by expected delivery date, if tomorrow it’s the same as today then today you made one day’s progress.
  13. Lack of detail in the project plans
    See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10. Anyone of these and is almost guaranteed your plan will be missing some vital element but avoiding these does not mean you have sufficient detail.
  14. Inaccurate time and effort estimates
    Most people underestimate time and effort in performing a task. Those same people are even worse at estimating what it takes for someone else to perform it.  Estimating is a skill honed by experience.


Anyone of these can cause project failure, but most result from a combination of many.

The outcomes will be less effective (sometimes not useful at all), take longer, cost more and create frustration and stress among the team.  If you just do one thing to ensure outcomes are positive – check progress frequently and measure it against expectations and changing situations to ensure you stay on track.