How To Avoid Project Failure

Paul Naybour

There are many and varied reasons why a project might fail. Certain industries have a much higher chance of failure than others just because of the nature of their business. Of course the training and experience of the project manager also plays a part in the likelihood of failure. But if you are currently involved in a project that is heading for disaster then read on because there are many obvious causes of project failure that are easy to avoid.
Many people involved in a failing project, whether they are a stakeholder, project manager or team member, will have an opinion on the causes of the failure. The problems may be obvious but the underlying cause of the problems may be less so. An individual’s opinion on the reason behind a problem is almost always biased and aimed at avoiding any personal blame.
Let’s take as an example an IT project where a fundamental code module necessary for the success of the project has been delivered late and does not work correctly. It is easy to blame the developer who programmed the module, but look a bit deeper and it could have been an unrealistic estimate that did not take into account the developer’s opinion. Look deeper still and it could have been a sketchy requirements document or a poorly defined business objective. So it is easy to see that if the fundamentals of good project management have not been followed then the outcome will not be successful. But it is unrealistic to go right back to the beginning of a project and start again. So, as a project manager, how do you move forward more successfully to avoid the end result being a failure?
The first step is to establish clear project success or failure criteria and a mechanism for measuring the success of the project. Without these it will be impossible to definitively state that the project was a success.
It is clear that to avoid failure you need to determine the causes of problems not simply identify the problems. So, for example, “Deadline Missed” is not the reason the project is failing merely the manifestation of some underlying cause. It is by understanding those causes that the problems, and hence failure, can be avoided. But just to help in distinguishing the genuine causes from the problems here is a list of the problems most likely to lead to project failure:

  • Deadline Missed
  • Budget Exceeded
  • Project Requirements Not Met
  • Required Quality Not Provided

But the main causes of project failure are:
Inadequate Requirements – poorly defined requirements at the project planning stage lead to an unsatisfactory end result or even the inability to deliver a solution.
Inadequate Project Resources – or poor allocation of available project resources in terms of people, time and money.
Lack of Senior Management Support – Executive involvement is essential to ensure the validity of the business case and secure adequate resources.      
No Change Control Process – Requirements and Priorities can and probably will change during the course of a project so a robust mechanism to control the changes is required.
Poorly defined User Requirements and Scope – project requirements must be clearly defined and kept within the defined scope boundaries.
Ineffective Project Management – this could be a lack of planning, an ill-defined project plan or poor estimates.
Ineffective Communication – this is one of the most important of these causes. Effective communication will ensure that the business objectives and requirements are clearly defined, progress is clearly reported and end user and client expectations are managed in such a way as to prevent unrealistic expectations.
Lack of Risk Management and/or a Contingency Plan – it is vital to identify and manage project risks appropriately and to put in place a contingency plan.
Weak business case – the justification for starting any project must refer directly to a business requirement and show the benefit to an organisation of implementing the project.
Although poor planning is often identified as a cause of project failure it is rarely the case that developing a clear, detailed project plan is sufficient to get a project back on course, which probably indicates that there is never just one reason why a project starts to fail. But by taking note of these common reasons for failure, preferably from the outset of the project, you can avoid your project ending in failure.

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