Why Projects Fail

Published: Apr 10, 2019
Modified: Apr 08, 2024

By AMA Staff

Is project failure considered business as usual in your organization? Statistics vary as to how many projects fail, but everyone agrees the number is too high. AMA’s seminar Project Team Leadership: Building Commitment Through Superior Communication lists four main reasons for project failure, along with more detailed information about each:

1. Projects are not clearly defined at the executive level

  • There is lack of consensus/alignment among key players.
  • There is no process to prioritize projects and the necessary resources.
  • Too many projects are being worked on at one time.

Scope continuously changes due to:
—Not being properly assessed at the beginning of the project
—Allowing (or forcing) changes to “sneak in”
—Changing and/or volatile business conditions
—Structures are not in place to facilitate the accomplishment and management of complex, cross-functional work.

  • Projects are forced into the traditional organization structure.
  • There is lack of an agreed-upon project management methodology and phase process.
  • Functional managers are not clear on their roles in a project-focused organization.
  • Projects are “thrown over the wall” and mixed in with operational and functional work.
  • Computer systems either don’t exist or don’t support project work.

2. Project implementation plans are not developed within the team environment

  • Work is not broken down into manageable tasks.
  • Tasks are often missed.
  • Some tasks are mentioned but glossed over.
  • The interdependencies between tasks are never determined or made visible.
  • Team members lack clarity on role responsibility and task deadlines.

3. Stakeholders have unrealistic expectations regarding the capabilities of project management software programs

  • Software is a tool, and a tool has limitations—it is limited by its logic.
  • It can take more time to keep the project on software “current” than it takes to “run” the project.
  • Many times, a company or team lacks a project management software “guru” to debug the system when it doesn’t perform as expected.

4. Project managers and teams are mismanaged

  • Constraint delivery dates are forced on the team.
  • People are overloaded with too many projects.
  • Team members get pulled off the team frequently.
  • Senior management resists dealing with an “honest assessment of reality.”
  • Shortcuts are approved with little thought.
  • Senior management autocratically insists “just do it.”
  • The assumption is made that people already know how to work competently on teams.
  • It is assumed that project managers know how to develop options and present them to management.
  • The critical “people”aspect of the project is not included in the planning and implementation of the project.

Regarding Project Success
In the early project management days (early 1960s), “successful” project management meant that the job got done, period. Time and cost didn’t really matter and were not considered constraints. Times certainly have changed since then. As time-to-market pressures and competition have increased, so has the importance of not only getting the job done, but getting it done in the agreed-to amount of time and cost.

So consider this: In today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing world, project success means bringing the project in:
—On time
—Within budget
—At the proper performance, quality and/or specification levels

—Acceptance by the customer/client/user(s)
—Minimum or mutually agreed upon scope changes

—Disturbing the main work flow of the organization
—Changing the company culture

How do you really know you have been successful? The ultimate sign of a successful project is that your customer/client asks you to do more work for them—and you feel extremely secure in using their name as a reference. In fact, they might even refer people to you and your company.
And who doesn’t need more business today?

© 2004 American Management Association. All rights reserved. Excerpted and adapted from Project Team Leadership: Building Commitment Through Superior Communication.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.