5 Common Causes of Project Failure and How to Avoid Them

Published: Nov 02, 2021
Modified: Apr 08, 2024


Failure happens, as we’re often told. It’s simply a part of the process of learning and growing, and it just might yield valuable insights. So, when managing a project, it’s realistic to expect something to fail—a mismatched task, a minor miscalculation, a slight delay from a supplier—along the road to completion. But a total project failure is altogether different; it has the potential to cause serious and lasting damage to the company’s bottom-line, relationships, and reputation. And even if it’s not likely to reach the notorious level of Betamax, New Coke, or the Edsel, no manager wants to be responsible for a failed project that could harm their company and threaten their career.

There are many reasons a project can fail, and some contributing factors—the disruptive impact of a pandemic, for example—are truly beyond the project manager’s control. As a general rule, however, project managers are better equipped to avoid failure by knowing the common causes in advance and addressing these project management challenges before they escalate and lead to a disaster.

A world leader in professional development, American Management Association (AMA) is committed to providing project managers with the tools, techniques, and foresight to succeed. Towards meeting that goal, AMA highlights five key areas for project managers to pay careful attention to from the start of a project by taking the time to ask and answer the following questions:

  1. Is the project well-defined at the executive level?
    To have a solid chance of succeeding, a project must be fully thought out, easily comprehensible, and wholeheartedly supported by senior leaders. If there’s lack of consensus among key players at the top, then prioritizing resources for the project will be a struggle. If the scope continuously changes, or other crucial elements aren’t aligned, the project may be headed for failure.
  2. Are the required work management structures in place?
    Another common project management challenge is not having the structures firmly established to manage complex work. When there’s a lack of agreement about the right project methodology, inadequate computer systems to support the work, or insufficient people to handle the tasks, the project is pretty much doomed from day one.
  3. Are the implementation plans correct?
    It’s the project manager’s job to make sure implementation plans are developed within the project team environment. Otherwise, team members could become confused about their roles and responsibilities, resulting in overlooked tasks, missed benchmarks, and the gradual unraveling of the entire project.
  4. Are software expectations realistic?
    Technology can be a wonderful asset and make work more efficient. Still, regardless of its state-of-the-art status and hype, it’s only a tool. Project stakeholders may have unrealistic expectations about the project software. Software has its limitations—and not every organization has an on-hand software expert to train the project team and troubleshoot technical issues.
  5. Is there mismanagement?
    ?Yes, even project managers can be mismanaged, which trickles down into project team mismanagement. The possible reasons are many, from unrealistic delivery dates to critical people being excluded from project implementation.

To avoid project failure, know the risks and common project management challenges. Communicate them to others. And have a plan to address them if they do occur.

About AMA

American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit www.amanet.org.