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Consulting Services • Published 2/01/2022 How Projects Fail (It Happens at the Start)


Unfortunately, projects fail all the time. More than half go over budget or fall short of proposed goals. There are many reasons projects fail, but a trained and certified Project Management Professional (PMP) can help prevent most failures.

Professional project managers understand and apply the idea that "projects fail because of context, not because of content," found in Rob Thomsett’s 2002 book Radical Project Management. The end goal and technical aspects are the content of a project, along with skills such as creating budgets or schedules. The context of a project includes managing people, expectations, communications, and other aspects that require a different set of tools.

Projects are usually declared a failure at the end, when expected outcomes, timelines, or budgets have not been met. However, failure starts long before any project is deemed a failure. For example, if you build a house that takes twice as long as predicted and goes well over budget, due to factors either inside or outside of your control, you may consider the project a failure. However, the house was still built (content) and you likely moved into the house. The right project manager has the skill and experience to align and manage expectations, risk, and results (context).

Signs of project failure

If you know what to look for, you can spot signs of a project that will fail or is approaching failure. Some red flags are obvious, but others might be overlooked if you are not closely monitoring the situation. Red flags include:

Poor project planning or no plan at all

To save money, some organizations choose not to hire a professional to plan and execute their projects. A common myth is that all projects are planned. However, strategically agreeing change is needed is not the same as creating and executing a project plan.

The halo effect

Halo effect is a type of bias in which our perception of someone’s ability to do all things well is positively influenced by our opinion of that person’s ability to do one thing well. Since the halo effect shapes our perception of others’ intelligence and competence, its influence can be seen on project failure. For example, a person great at creating financial statements may be considered capable of managing a project to implement new billing software. The two skillsets are not related.

Lack of a clearly-defined end

Some organizations may decide to “improve” billing processes, without first defining what improvement means. It may take a project management professional to guide conversations and uncover the true needs of the project, then develop milestones to the desired goal.

Unrealistic demands

Leaders may not understand the limits of a new process or software. This results in expecting more than can be delivered, or for deliverables at an impossible cost or in an impossible timeframe.

Disagreement on project requirements

All the people invested in the project’s outcome need to understand, and agree about, what the project actually entails. Without clear, careful communication, one person’s idea may not match everyone else’s vision.

Lack of team involvement

It is important to gain buy-in from the people impacted by the project’s outcome. Employees need to understand what is changing and why. In addition to paving the way for smoother transitions and training related to the changes, the team members may be able to contribute helpful ideas to save time or money.

Stressed or overworked team members

This is an often-overlooked cause of project failure. Tired people make mistakes. Stressed people make mistakes and fear consequences, so they may not report them. A project management professional knows how to communicate expectations clearly and manage all project resources, including human capital, for best outcomes.

Failure, or fear, to stop and plan again

Projects sometimes fail because of pride and fear. Recognizing project failure early should be viewed as an opportunity to stop waste and pull success out of a bad start. Many people are afraid to admit errors in the process and stop the project until corrections can be made.

The value of project management

Often, organizations do not spend the time or effort to perform required planning before the project begins. This lack of focus on results at the beginning can set up a project to fail before the work ever starts. Planning does take an initial investment of time and money, but the long-term success of the project is worth it, and studies show that adequate planning leads to lower overall project time and cost. Some people object that the cost of professional project management is too high, but what is the cost of project failure?

Project management is more than just a tool for carrying out discrete goals; the framework is now also being applied to broader strategy and initiatives.

Benefits of project management

Project management can execute an organization’s big-picture vision by making the strategy actionable.

Whether for a project or broader initiative, project management allows for excellent organization and tracking. A PMP is trained to efficiently control and use all resources, including team members. Project management can help reduce the complexity of inter-related tasks and provides for measurement of outcome versus plans.

Perhaps most important for the bottom line, project management provides early identification of problems and quick corrections, through a focus on prediction and prevention, not recognition and reaction. If you have a project showing signs of failure or a goal that requires the highest level of confidence for a successful outcome, contact P&N Consulting Director Mark Staley, who can quickly guide you through the next steps in your critical decision.

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