What To Do When A Project Has Failed

Paul Naybour

A successful project will meet the objectives set out in the beginning. Any project that meets it’s original aims but is not delivered on time or on budget can still be considered successful if the cost and/or schedule are renegotiated and agreed with stakeholders in advance of delivery.


Project failure can include any scenario in which there has been a failure to deliver what was required in an acceptable timeframe and at an acceptable cost. Or, indeed, failure to deliver anything at all.


A project manager who has been in charge of a project that has failed is likely to be feeling at a very low ebb. All the time and effort that has been put into managing the project begins to feel like a waste of time. However, these defeatist thoughts are not productive and the best way to tackle a failed project is to review what has gone wrong and to learn from the mistakes so they are not repeated.


It is, of course, rare for a project to run seamlessly and the key to competent project management is not necessarily getting it right first time. It is common to have to adjust the scope, the schedule or the budget and project managers will expect this and will usually have built in a contingency to their plans.


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What Causes Project Failure?


However, knowing how to identify failure and turn it around quickly and effectively is not so easy. Many projects struggle on, on the brink of failure, but it is sometimes better to accept a project has failed, rescue what you can and move on.


What causes a project to fail?


  • Communication is a common cause of failed projects. You may wish to look at how you, as a project manager, have communicated with your team and with your client and how well your team communicate with each other. It is easy to see how things can go wrong if messages were missed, requirements were not properly understood, or problems and issues were not communicated back to the manager. Communication is also key in moving forwards following a project failure as feedback is an important aspect of your review process. Identifying past mistakes is a great way of improving work in the future.


  • Embarking on a project with too few resources is a sure fire route to failure. It is essential to properly identify the resources needed at the outset to avoid being caught out halfway through a project. If appropriate resources are not forthcoming, then be very clear about the fact that either scope needs to be reduced or deadlines extended.


  • Properly identifying the scope of a project is essential to keep it on track. If scope gradually increases then so will time and cost. Project managers should be very clear about their objectives from the outset.


  • Unfortunately, incompetent project managers are another cause of project failure. Individuals lacking in experience can cause more of a hindrance than a help. If a project manager is not undertaking regular monitoring and control, or is failing to communicate effectively then the project can be negatively affected.


  • A good project manager will identify warning signs. Failure to identify warning signs can quickly lead to failure of a project. These warning signs include missed deadlines and indications that the team are not working well together. Early intervention from the manager is needed to ensure that a project is on the right track.


What steps should you take when it becomes clear that a project has failed?

Step 1

It is very easy, following failure, to look for someone to blame. This is unlikely to be helpful, despite being very tempting. What is really needed is a deconstruction of the project to identify the weaknesses in order to take action and ensure that the project does not continue to be undermined.


Whilst many project managers set the ball rolling on a project and then take a step back to monitor and evaluate the progress of their team, at the point at which a project begins to fail, a project manager needs to take centre stage once again. They need to play a central role in finding out what went wrong and in ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. They may need to micromanage the project for some time, requiring daily standups to find out what each member of the team is up to and whether the work is successful. Some team members may not appreciate this top-down approach but in a crisis, project managers need to do everything they can to ensure the success of a project and protect the reputation of the team.



Key to ensuring that failure doesn’t strike again is putting in place a continuous process of monitoring and evaluation. Although every project manager will tell you that this is a crucial final step to a project, it makes little sense to evaluate the success only at the point of completion. An ongoing process of monitoring will enable a good project manager to identify problems early on, and be able to act in a flexible way to resolve them.


Step 2

Evaluation of a failed project does not only revolve around identifying the failures, it is also important to look at what went well. Analysing the plan and understanding the parts of the plan that were achieved is as important as identifying the aspects that were not. You may find that on balance, a large proportion of the project was well tackled and in fact it is a small fraction of the work that caused it to fail. There is little point in drawing up a new plan from scratch if the majority of it went well in the first instance.


Once you have identified the cause of the failure following your debrief on all elements of the project, it is time for the project to be redefined and refocused. This essentially means going back to the beginning and drawing up a new plan of action. Work with the team to identify the desired outcomes and how each member plans to meet their specific objectives. Ensure that every member of the team is very clear about your expectations of them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to look at the project through the eyes of others as they may be able to see it with a fresh perspective and offer some interesting insights.


All projects are limited by time, cost and scope, although other factors often also impose constraints. Quite simply, a successful project should be delivered on time, meeting the deadline, within the agreed budget and must meet the scope agreed at the beginning to an acceptable level of quality. These elements of the project are interdependent. This means that if for example you need to reduce the costs associated with the project, the scope must either be reduced or the time frame increased. Likewise, if the deadline is reduced, perhaps because you are starting from scratch due to a failure to deliver, then the costs will be increased or the scope reduced. Scope is the trickiest aspect to define and is a common cause of failure. Successful projects need to be fully understood and well defined from the beginning. If you need to increase the scope of a project for any reason then either your deadlines must be extended or your budget must be increased.


It is important to understand the relevance of this interdependency of cost, time and scope as this will be essential to your planning when deciding how to redefine your project. You need to balance the resources you have in order to decide how each side of the triangle will be increased or decreased. The role of the project manager is to balance these constraints in order to successfully deliver a project to senior management or to a client. If the project manager is unable to do so with the resources available to them, they need to decide which of the resources need to be altered and then approach the client or senior management for approval of additional time or money.


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Step 3


The likelihood is that your original schedule and resource allocation will no longer be met. You need to be realistic about what the new schedule and balance of resources looks like. If the deadlines have been shifted then speaking to your client about the new time frame is crucial. Being overly optimistic about the time within which the project can be finished may be detrimental to you in the long run, as you risk missing two deadlines. This failure to deliver on time can break down the relationship of trust with the client and be detrimental to your reputation.


You will also need to renegotiate the budget, either by speaking to the client to agree the allocation of further resources or by organising your use of resources in order to meet the originally agreed costs. Again, if you plan to ask your client for more money, be sure to calculate a realistic estimate. Finally, you may be able to renegotiate the scope of the project. If you are unable to extend the deadline or increase the funding then the scope of the project must be reduced. Defining what the new scope will be is crucial to the eventual success of the project.


There is of course another option, which is to cancel the project altogether. If the reason for failure is that the project is inherently flawed then there may be little point in continuing to try and deliver it. Ideally, this is nothing more than a last resort and you may have more success in thinking about reducing the scope of the project rather than scrapping it completely.


The likelihood is that your client or manager will be unhappy about the fact that the project has failed and requires an extended deadline, reduction in scope or further allocation of resources. Attempt to explain the situation clearly, citing facts and refraining from allocating blame. Before approaching the stakeholders it is highly advisable to go armed with some options for the future. Arriving without a plan to turn the failure around is unlikely to be well received.


How to tell a client that a project has failed

In general, the conversation regarding project failure should be had face to face. If you cannot arrange a meeting in person with stakeholders then you should try and arrange a video call. Email messages leave too much space for misinterpretation of the facts and communicating failure in this way is unprofessional. Be prepared for your client to respond in a worried or angry manner.


Hopefully, once you have finished sharing the information and explained the plan going forwards, relations will improve. It is crucial to be honest about what has happened. Accept responsibility if necessary and use your leadership skills to explain what will happen next. Above all else, remain professional throughout the conversation and stick to the facts.


In conclusion

The reality is that we all make mistakes and projects rarely run completely smoothly. The important thing is to learn from the mistakes and make yourself a better project manager going forwards. Here are the important things to remember if your project has failed:


  • Accept when a project is not going as it should be and either take steps to make changes or to halt the project altogether.
  • Be honest and open with stakeholders about the progress of the project and the additional resources that may be necessary.
  • Accept responsibility for any part that you played in the failure of the project.
  • Prepare to be flexible in any recovery plans.
  • Communicate well not only with stakeholders but also with your team who will be looking to you for leadership at this crucial time.
  • Undertake a continuous monitoring and evaluation process to ensure that the project does not stray far from the tracks again.
  • Be realistic about extending any deadlines, requesting additional funding and potentially reducing the scope of the project.

2 thoughts on “What To Do When A Project Has Failed”

  1. This is great however what would you do if the project has run over budget putting the provider into a loss & client refuses to offer more funding.

    1. That’s a hard one. Really it should start with an agreement on the scope at the start of the project and then change control from that point forward. Trying to recover once you have overspent is going to be a difficult negotiation. Try getting some of your senior managers involved.

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