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Reasons Why Projects Fail And What You Can Do About Them

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 11th June 2014

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No matter how well-qualified you are or how in-depth your experience, you will more than likely at some point encounter a project failure. Often nobody wants to admit the project has failed so it will be dressed up in a variety of ways, sometimes with a follow-on project to rectify the problems or fill the gaps but everyone can recognise the signs: usually the project hasn’t quite provided the expected benefits, or it has gone way over budget.

Good project management is all about planning and controlling to ensure success, however, admitting your mistakes and learning from them can only improve your skills and benefit current and future projects.

So take a look at some of these common reasons for project failure and think about how you could do things differently next time, even if your last project was a “success”.


1. Lack of experience on the team

You have to trust that every member of your team is qualified and experienced enough to complete the tasks they are given. As a project manager your job is not to focus on the specifics of what they’re doing but rather check they are completing their tasks fully and on time. Beginning with a team that has the correct experience is the first step; the second step is allocating the right task to the right person. Accepting a lack of experienced resources on your team without taking action will inevitably lead to failure.


2. Small changes lead to big failures

Project dynamics will inevitably shift and change and it’s when they are doing so without your awareness, control or management that you know you have a serious problem. Recognising ‘scope creep’ is key to ensuring you don’t suddenly find yourself losing control of the budget and schedule. Try and understand the impact of every small change to ensure you are able to manage it appropriately before it’s too late.


3. Outsourcing

If some of the work is outsourced, the risk factors involved in the project can grow rapidly. The outsourced team may not be solely focusing on the work they are doing for you, which means additional schedule risk and potential for failure. As an external vendor, they may be reluctant to admit to any problems they are facing so the risk involved with outsourcing requires you to pay real attention to who you contract to do the work and the relationship you create with them. Ask for frequent status updates and read between the lines of what they say. Having a mitigation strategy in place if outsourced activities fail to deliver should be part of your risk management process.


4. Multitasking

If a project manager is focused on more than one different project at once, they are more likely to run into trouble at some point. Using other people on the project team that are also multitasking can exacerbate the issue, particularly if senior management is not communicating or setting priorities effectively. Where possible project managers and their team should be completely focused on the project in hand, and where that isn’t possible, an open dialogue about priorities and a sound communication plan should be used to ensure all those involved understand what is expected of them. This open dialogue also ensures team members feel they can raise any problems they are struggling with.


5. Lack of quality control

No quality control, or ineffective quality control, is another factor that can contribute to project failure when the delivered product or service does not meet the real needs of the client. Consider the kind of quality control you are using in your project and whether it is truly effective; look for ways it could be improved.


6. Using new software or technology

Using a system or process that hasn’t been tried and tested is always a risk but sometimes it is unavoidable. However, if you manage the increased risk very closely and avoid experimenting with new software or technology on an important project then real success is still possible.


7. Inadequate planning

Inadequate planning of resources, resource management, scheduling and all other contributory factors is very likely to result in a less than successful project. The initiation phase should include thorough planning and a strong project management framework.


8. Lack of communication

Lack of communication, or ineffective communication, is one of the commonest problems that lead projects astray, especially when stakeholders are not informed of any negative developments or team members are not informed of changes in priorities or requirements. A good communication plan, one that is not only written down but also adhered to, will ensure all team members and stakeholders remain involved and aware.


Why not share with us your experiences of avoiding project failure and help others devise potential rescue strategies.

  1. Student says:

    Michelle interesting post but the causes of success are even more interesting. I once did a research project looking at a number of projects and the factors causing success were

    1) A really clear and compelling business case most importantly a significant benefit. The bigger the payback the more the organisation was willing to support the project.

    2) A clear definition of the project concept, what it was going to do and how this could be achieved. Without clarity the project gets lost even if it offers a significant return.

    3) A competent project leader. This meant that the project was managed in an effective way. The competent leader could also leverage the business case to get the resources and support of the organisation to deliver the project.

    All three factors were linked in the projects I examined. The business case benefit was the most important, with out it the project struggles to get support from Senior Management.

  2. Student says:

    The more I am involved in projects the more I am convinced that at a fundamental level we under-estimate just how difficult they are. Do we have a right to expect successful change without significant investment of effort in planning, communication, supplier liason etc.? It seems many practitioners believe so and I think this is the main underlying reason why their endeavours fail.

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