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Understanding The Causes Of Project Failure

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 18th February 2017

Nothing in life is plain sailing, and this is definitely the case when it comes to the project management profession where project failure is common. For project managers in the early stages of their career especially, you will, of course, make mistakes. But, by learning from them, you can become the best project manager you can be. More importantly, you can also learn from the mistakes that others have made by studying best practices both industry wide and within your own organisation, so that you do not have to go through the experience yourself. There are numerous reasons for project failure, and by understanding them, you can minimise the chances of them occurring during the next project you manage. Below, we are going to take a look at the most common reasons for project failure in further detail to give you a better understanding of what to look out for and what to avoid.

Decision-making problems

First and foremost, a significant number of projects fail because of issues with decision-making. There are numerous problems that could arise. Let’s take a look at them:
  • Failure to establish a clear process by which key decisions are made. This can cause indecision and confusion.
  • There are unanswered questions regarding decisions that are made. This can again cause confusion. You may answer the ‘who, why, when, where, and how’ components of a decision, for example, but other queries may not be finalised.
  • You go for the first solution, and key decisions are made without identifying alternatives or considering different options.
  • The team tries to avoid making difficult decisions because they are worried about the stakeholders’ reactions.
  • Ineffective decisions are made due to a lack of situational awareness.
  • Expert advice is never solicited or is simply ignored when making decisions of critical importance.
  • Key decisions are made by individuals who do not have the subject matter expertise to be making such decisions.

Lack of effective communication

All project managers need to be effective communicators. If communication does not flow efficiently between every level of management, it can lead to disastrous consequences. From the team to senior management and clients, everyone needs to be on the same page, and everyone should feel comfortable in regards to giving suggestions or expressing their concern. This will ensure that there is transparency and that workflow is at an optimal level.

Poor project tracking

A project can often fail when it has not been tracked correctly. You may believe that everything is on the right track when, in fact, it isn’t. This is often the worst type of project failure, as the project can seem to be progressing well but then serious issues are sprung on you by surprise.

However, if you do not take the necessary steps to track the project effectively, it shouldn’t be a shock at all if something goes wrong. Firstly, you need to make sure there is a system in place whereby people are reminded of their upcoming commitments and activities. This could be a software solution that tracks all tasks relating to the project. Do not simply assume that someone is going to remember to do something because they were told about it once.

You should also track the project based on smaller increments, as opposed to large work items. Regular monitoring of vendor or sub-contractor performance is also essential, and you should never simply believe that your team will catch up if they are behind. Pressure to mark a task as complete can also result in quality being compromised – it’s important to know where to draw the line.

You also need to make sure you do not dismiss information that may show the project is running into difficulties, and don’t simply gloss over any bad news when presenting to stakeholders and managers. It is important that everyone is on the same page; otherwise, the problem will only get worse. Another common reason for project failure in regards to project tracking is because project managers often publish a project plan, yet they then fail to follow up on it or amend it as necessary. You need to track the plan to ensure that any issues are addressed early so that they do not cause further problems and delays.

revising for APM Exam

Lack of project management skills

One of the most common reasons why a project fails is because the person in charge has not received basic project management training. A lot of people drift into the role of project manager; it is not something they necessarily embarked upon at the beginning of their career. There are also a lot of people that believe being capable of managing a project is a skill you either have or you don’t. No matter how much of a good leader you are, the right training is essential to provide effective project management skills, just as it is in almost every other career.

You will learn about the different approaches you can apply to various projects, how to deal with difficult situations that may arise, how to manage time and expectations effectively, risk management, and much, much more. You will also learn about managing remote teams, which is becoming more and more of a reality for project managers today. These are skills that can only be taught – no one naturally has all of the makings of a successful project manager. So, a lack of project management training is definitely a reason for project failure, which is why so many organisations invest in training for their PMs.

Do you have...The Essential Project Management Skills?

Issues concerning quality

Project failure can also arise when a product or service is delivered that is not up to the standard expected. There are numerous reasons why such a situation can occur, including:
  • Testing your project in an environment that is not configured in the same way as the target production. This can lead to inaccurate results.
  • Failure to discuss quality requirements. This is one of the biggest reasons for issues concerning quality to arise, as it means that people end up with different expectations regarding the standards that need to be achieved. It is important, therefore, to manage project expectations fully.
  • Leaving integration and testing of individual components until the completion of all development activities. If you do this, problems may go undetected until it is too late.
  • Ignoring complex situations during the testing phase, instead only focusing on simple test cases.
  • There is a lack of responsibility. Quality is something that should be seen as a shared responsibility, and all members of the team should be aware of this. However, some project members will see quality as the responsibility of the Quality Assurance team.
  • Quality is only viewed in terms of testing and not as a mindset throughout the whole project.
  • Failure to focus on issues of substance when reviewing design papers and documents, and instead focusing on the likes of grammar and spelling.
  • Failure to plan appropriate checkpoints, tests or reviews whereby quality can be verified.

Poor information management leads to project failure

Poor information management is another common cause of project failure. If you do not put the correct tools in place for organising and managing information, you will find that key pieces of data will end up lost. There will also be confusion over what documents are current and important, which can cause disruption to the progress of your project.

Failure to implement effective risk management

Risk management is an important part of project management, however, a lot of project managers overlook it. They do not see the point in preparing for various risks, feeling that it is better to simply focus on getting the project right instead. This attitude is a disaster waiting to happen and can cause project failure. No project runs smoothly. There are always bumps along the way. If you do not prepare for such issues, they will catch you and your team by surprise, and they can lead to severe problems that could have been avoided if you had planned for them. It is crucial that all project managers think ahead, foreseeing any potential problems and addressing them. Risk management needs to be viewed as an integral part of the planning process; it should not be seen as an independent activity. If you aren’t doing risk management effectively, risks, issues and problems will become confused.

Ineffective planning

The planning stage of any project is of paramount importance. Your project could be doomed from the offset if you do not plan properly. You should never, under any circumstances, dive straight into the execution of work without planning beforehand. Good project planning contributes to success so is something that should be viewed as a team activity; the responsibility should not fall solely on your shoulders. Other mistakes during the planning stage include failure to manage customer or management expectations, working under excessive and constant schedule pressure, underestimating the complexity of the task at hand, as well as unclear roles and responsibilities, which can cause confusion. You also need to make sure that all change requests are handled formally. You need to assess the implications of the change before agreeing to it.

Aside from this, provide sufficient user training when necessary, make sure the project plan includes appropriate culture change activities, and prioritise requirements effectively. Failure to do the latter can result in the team focusing their energy on items that are of a lower priority, instead of high priority work. You also need to ensure that you do not overload certain team members with work and under-utilise others. The team members that are overloaded could experience a downfall in their performance levels, which could impact critical areas of the project.

planning for project quality

Incorrect estimations

Another common reason for project failure is providing incorrect estimations. This sets a team up for failure, as they will never be able to satisfy the unrealistic estimations that are put in place. Let’s take a look at some of the common reasons why estimations are inaccurate:
  1. The assumption that a new system, process or tool is going to lead to instant improvements in productivity.
  2. Failure to build in contingency to handle unknowns.
  3. Failure to use performance data that has been culled from prior projects when doing estimations.
  4. Omitting smaller scale ctivities when estimating and solely focusing on big ticket items.
  5. Failing to validate, discuss or document assumptions that are used for estimating.
  6. Insufficient analysis or information is used during estimations.
  7. Estimations are carried out without a corresponding statement of scope.
  8. Allowing a customer, sales agent or manager to bully the team into commitments that are simply unrealistic.
  9. Arbitrarily cutting estimates for the purpose of making a project more attractive or securing a contract.
  10. Excluding those who are going to perform the work from the estimating process. They are the most valuable people when determining how much work is required and how long it is going to take.
tackling project communication issues

Team issues

Team issues can also simmer and have an impact on the project as a whole, potentially contributing to project failure. Team issues include pushing a team into doing even more overtime when they are already exhausted, using practices that undermine the motivation of the team, and a lack of feedback, which can result in discontent. You also need to ensure you choose the person who is best qualified for a role, as opposed to the first person available.

Omissions, errors and confusion can arise when there is a lack of clear roles and responsibilities and, naturally, problems can occur if there are not enough team members to complete the work you have committed to. The team also needs to have the correct training in the processes and technology that is going to be used, and non-performance of individual team members and poor team dynamics must be addressed.

How to build...A Successful Project Team

Disregarding signs of impending project failure

Last but not least, if you ignore any of the warning signs that your project is going wrong, then you are pretty much guaranteed to experience greater problems later down the line. If you feel you are getting behind schedule, for instance, you should not simply hope the issue will go away. Instead, you need to put a plan in action to speed the project up, or you need to talk with the stakeholders to manage expectations and push the deadline back if possible.

Hopefully, you now have a clear picture regarding what can cause project failure. Try and be alert to some of the scenarios that could derail your project so you can avoid them in the future. If you avoid the mistakes mentioned in this post, you can go a long way to making sure that your project is a success.

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