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Why Projects Fail

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 2nd February 2015

I’ve been reading the latest 2015 PwC report on Insights and Trends: Current Portfolio, Programme, and Project Management Practices recently (pretty heavy going) and have summarised in a blog post over on the Parallel blog what the report has to say about why projects fail, particularly that projects fail because of poor estimates in the planning phase. But, whilst, the PwC survey data does, I’m sure, back up that implication it made me think why?

Why has it been an increasing trend for over a decade that the single most common reason by far for project failure was poor estimating?

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Is it that difficult to make a reasonable estimate for a piece of work, especially if we have done something similar before? Maybe it is, but if it has been proven to be difficult or projects are consistently under-estimating how long it will take to complete certain tasks then why aren’t project managers learning from this and adding a suitable amount of contingency to their time estimates?

One of the report’s most significant, and yet not surprising, findings is that poor estimation during the planning phase continues to be the largest contributor to project failures.

The PwC report was a fairly wide-ranging international study covering a whole variety of organisations (public and private sector) in numerous industries so clearly the problem is not confined to just a few sectors or a few countries (and hence, maybe, PM methodologies).

Maybe the answer cannot be found in data and statistics but is more indefinable and comes down to personal inter-actions and hierarchies in the workplace.

For instance, if internal senior executives or an important external client want a project to be completed by a certain date there is often huge pressure to set the project delivery date to meet that deadline; often before it is clear what the exact requirements are. We try and retro-fit the work into the available time, or at least the time that is perceived to be available. Everything else on the project is then constrained by that deadline so it is little wonder that the project under-performs.

But would you have the courage, as a project manager, to insist the deadline was unreasonable. More likely you might try and reduce the scope to give your team a chance of delivering on time, but the risk with that is the deliverable does not then meet the needs and objectives of the client.

What do you think about this issue of poor estimates? Are there other more intangible factors contributing to project failures or are the statistics right that suggest we, as project managers, are getting worse at estimating?