5 Notorious Failed Projects & What We Can Learn from Them

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Failure is an unavoidable part of any project process: it’s the degree of failure that makes the difference. If a task fails, there are ways to reallocate resources and get back on track. But a systemic collapse will derail the whole project.

What good can come from failure? A lot, actually. Sometimes a project reaches too far beyond its means and fails, which is unfortunate, but can also serve as a teaching moment. If project managers don’t learn from their mistakes, then they’re not growing professionally and will revisit the same problem in future projects.

Project managers can learn as much, if not more, from failed projects as they can from successful ones. A post mortem should be part of any project plan, and especially so when a project crashes and burns. There are valuable lessons in those ashes.

Let’s look at five notorious failed projects, not to gloat, but to see what they can tell us about project management.

lessons from project failures

Betamax

The word Betamax has become almost synonymous with failure. But when it was first released, Betamax was supposed to become the leader in the cassette recording industry. Developed by Sony, Betamax was introduced in the mid-1970s but was unable to get traction in the market, where JVC’s VHS technology was king.

Surprisingly, Sony continued to produce Betamax all the way into 2016. Long before it discontinued the technology, Betamax was already irrelevant.

The Lesson

Betamax was an innovative product, and it even got to market before VHS. But soon the market had options that were cheaper and better than Betamax, making it a failed project. Sony’s mistake was thinking that the project was complete once the product went to market. Project managers need to always follow up on their work, analyze the data and make an evaluation about what needs to be done to keep the project relevant.

New Coke

Coca-Cola is one of the most iconic brands in the world. It would take a lot to tarnish that reputation. But that’s just what happened when New Coke was introduced in 1985. People didn’t know why the Coke they loved and drank regularly was being replaced.

The company knew why. They were looking to improve quality and make a splash in the marketplace. The fact is, New Coke sunk like a stone. It wasn’t like New Coke was just released on an unknowing public, though it might seem that way. In fact, the new recipe was tested on 200,000 people, who preferred it to the older version.

But after spending $4 million in development and losing another $30 million in backstocked product, the taste for New Coke evaporated. Consumers can be very loyal to a product, and once they get into a habit, it can be very difficult to break them of it in favor of something different.

The Lesson

It’s not that Coca-Cola neglected market research to see if there was a need for developing a new product, but they were blind to their own customers’ motivations. New Coke was a failed project because the researchers needed to do more than a mere taste test. They needed to understand how people would react when the familiar Coke they loved would be discontinued and replaced by a shiny new upstart. Market research must be handled like a science and an art.

Stretch Project

The Stretch project was initiated in 1956 by a group of computer scientists at IBM who wanted to build the world’s fastest supercomputer. The result of this five-year project was the IBM 7030, also known as Stretch. It was the company’s first transistorized supercomputer.

Though Stretch could handle a half-million instructions per second and was the fastest computer in the world up to 1964, the project was deemed a failure. Why? The project’s goal was to create a computer 100 times faster than what it was built to replace. Stretch was only about 30-40 times faster.

The planned cost was $13.5 million, but the price dropped to $7.8 million; so the computer was at least completed below cost. Only nine supercomputers were built.

The Lesson

While the project was a failure in that it never achieved the goal it set, there was much IBM could salvage from the project. Stretch introduced pipelining, memory protection, memory interleaving and other technologies that helped with the development of future computers.

Creative work is rooted in failure specifically because of the serendipitous discovery that occurs. This was a creative project, which might not have met its paper objective, but created a slew of useful technologies. So, aim for your goal, and who knows what good things you’ll discover along the way.

Challenger Space Shuttle

The worst failure is one that results in the loss of life. When you’re dealing with highly complex and dangerous projects like NASA, there’s always tremendous risk that needs to be tracked. On January 28, 1986, that risk became a horrible reality as space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch.

The cause was a leak in one of the two solid rocket boosters that set off the main liquid fuel tank. The NASA investigation that followed said the failure was due to a faulty designed O-ring seal and the cold weather at launch, which allowed for the leak.

But it was not only a technical error that NASA discovered, but human error. NASA officials went ahead with the launch even though engineers were concerned about the safety of the project. The engineers noted the risk of the O-ring, but their communications never traveled up to managers who could have delayed the launch to ensure the safety of the mission and its astronauts.

The Lesson

Managers are only as well-informed as their team. If they’re not opening lines of communication to access the data on the frontlines of a project, mistakes will be made, and in this case, fatal ones.

Computerized DMV

Okay, no one loves the DMV. If they were a brand, their reputation would be more than tarnished, it would be buried. But everyone who drives a vehicle is going to have some interaction with this government agency. Unfortunately, they didn’t help their case in the 1990s when the states of California and Washington attempted to computerize their Departments of Motor Vehicles.

In California, the project began in 1987 as a five-year, $27 million plan to track its 31 million drivers’ licenses and 38 million vehicle registrations. Problems started at the beginning when the state solicited only one bid for the contract, Tandem Computers, locking the state into buying their hardware.

Then, to make things worse, tests showed that the new computers were even slower than the ones they were to replace. But the state moved forward with the project until 1994, when it had to admit failure and end the project. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the project cost the state $49 million, and a state audit found that the DMV violated contracting laws and regulations.

The Lesson

The problem here is a project that isn’t following regulations. All projects must go through a process of due diligence, and legal and regulatory constraints must be part of that process. If the state had done that and the contract bidding process invited more than one firm to the table, then a costly mess could have been avoided, and our wait at the DMV might actually have become shorter.

While we didn’t have an example, there are many projects that fail because they’re not equipped with the right tools for the job. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software that gives project managers and their teams everything they need to plan, monitor and report on their project. Don’t let your next project fail; try ProjectManager.com with this free 30-day trial.

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