Why Projects Fail


I find it ironic that a discipline intended to corral risk—project management—is in itself a risky proposition. By definition, our projects are focused on all of the work we do at just one time. Lacking the benefit of repetition, most initiatives struggle at some point, and many fail forward—sometimes inelegantly—as teams experiment and learn as they go.

And certainly, it’s no secret why project teams struggle. The coordination, communication, complexity, and interpersonal issues along with another few dozen variations on those themes bite us over and over again in these pursuits. The trick, of course, is for you to cultivate the experience (read: wisdom) and skills necessary to successfully navigate around as many of these known pitfalls as possible while keeping a sharp lookout for new and unexpected risks.

The path to developing project wisdom for all of us is strewn with mistakes and in my case, the occasional spectacular failure. All of these issues are powerful teaching tools.

This article shares nine lessons learned the hard way with three significant and troubled projects. Use the lessons for great project health!

When the Failure Turns Into the Phoenix

The phrase “go big or go home” is not a common mantra for most project initiatives. It was for this one, and after a spectacular multi-year effort, the initiative limped home. The primary cause of the cancellation was the inability to deal with the technical complexities and meet market requirements at the same time.

No one, including the engineers, doubted the availability of the market opportunity or the elegance of the proposed approach. Unfortunately, it was a bit too elegant both for the team and the time remaining. We joined hands at a funeral for the project (really!) on a Friday afternoon and came back to work Monday looking for a fresh start.

Fast forward 12 months and an incredible new opportunity reached out and begged us for a solution. After reviewing the options, it turned out that much of the intellectual property created for the failed initiative fits perfectly with the needs of this new client with very deep pockets and a deeper desire to solve their problem.

Best of all, the technical complexities that derailed us originally were not issues for the new client. Much like the Phoenix of mythology rising from the ashes, our former project returned in a new format to create a solution that ultimately led to a very prosperous and long life.

Three Big Lessons Learned

1. It took leadership courage to cancel the project. The decision was a hard-fought battle with a majority of team members seeking more time and money to get it right. In reality, we were already victims of the “sunk cost” trap, where the logic is, “We’ve invested this much already, we can’t stop now.” This situation is a common strategic and decision mistake and a well-recognized cognitive bias. In reality, the money spent to date is gone—it is a sunk cost, and it is not rational to add more just because we’ve already invested heavily. It is always tempting, and it takes courage to stand up and admit failure and quit spending.

2. Institutional knowledge might just save the day. The project manager for this initiative did an outstanding job documenting and archiving the intellectual property created for the project. Additionally, she detailed the major decisions and their outcomes in a decision log, and she made certain to capture the areas where we were unable to solve the technical hurdles. Although very few of the original players remained to work on the new initiative, the organization was well prepared to exhume the former project and explore its usefulness for the new customer.

3. The funeral for a friend helped. The size and complexity and perceived strategic importance of the project resulted in contentious dialog leading up to the final call to cancel it. The act of conducting a funeral for the project (complete with speeches, cocktails and food), settled the emotions of the team members and helped everyone push the reset button and move forward.

The act of conducting a funeral for the project (complete with speeches, cocktails and food), settled the emotions of the team members and helped everyone push the reset button and move forward.

We Aimed for Mars but Won the Moon

Another significant software project threatened to stretch this small firm to the breaking point and time and funding were both growing short. After some of the most contentious intra-departmental disagreements bordering on internecine warfare I have ever been around, we faced a hard fact: the product as specified was not within our means to create. The idea was revolutionary, but the firm had no resources to fight a revolution.

After a lot of teeth-gnashing and pontificating, we had two choices: dramatically shrink the scope or scuttle the initiative. The proposed and much-reduced offering would only address a subset of our targeted market and while sales and marketing complained, the sponsor, project manager and executive team made the call to shrink rather than kill the initiative. The head of sales was so outraged by the decision, he resigned.

Ultimately, the smaller offering served as a catalyst for new market development and offered a significant boost to the firm’s top and bottom lines. It was the success of this initiative that attracted a well-heeled suitor who ultimately acquired the business at a premium.

Three Big Lessons Learned

1. Lean and Agile Work. While the concepts of “lean” and “agile” are well established today, this firm tripped into them by necessity. In hindsight, even if the team had resolved the technical limitations of the larger offering, it is not clear the firm would have had the resources to bring it to market at scale. The winning formula turned out to be: start small, validate in the market and keep improving.

2. Fighting is OK if it’s over project details, not personalities. Learning how to fight over the project details and not personal issues is a part of the maturation of a team and an organization. The vice president of sales over-reacted in departing the firm and the cross-functional warfare created a toxic culture. It took a clear decision on the project scope and great project leadership and sponsorship to rein in the issues, replace some of the toxic players and help the organization grow into adulthood.

3. Decisions are not always best made by a majority vote. The adults had to step up in this case and make the final call on the project scope. Groups, while capable of making effective decisions, are also prone to getting it horribly wrong, particularly when emotions are turbocharged and biases are on display.

Learning how to fight over the project details and not personal issues is a part of the maturation of a team and an organization.

When the Team Rebels at Command and Control Leadership, Tread Softly

A team in turmoil is your worst nightmare. In this instance, the firm traded out the struggling PM for one known for leading through force of will tinged with a hefty dose of ferocity. Instead of getting better, things got worse, and with no one left to turn to, the executive committee tapped someone everyone viewed as inexperienced and underpowered to rescue this floundering project. However, Angela had displayed a knack for calming the seas of troubled initiatives, and the executive team was almost out of options.

During her first day as project leader, Angela stepped in and called the various group leaders together and let them vent. She nodded, took careful notes on a whiteboard and allowed the energy to run out of the group. When the team quieted down, she looked up at them and asked, “At the end of this initiative, when we are successful, what will you say that I did?” They were momentarily silent and then the floodgates opened again with all manner of ideas mostly focused on what they did not want her to do.

Angela again took notes on the whiteboard and asked their permission to think about the ideas overnight and make a proposal in the morning. The team agreed, although most members admitted later to having been confused about her intent. The meeting adjourned until the next morning.

After grabbing their caffeinated beverages of choice for the morning meeting, Angela projected a document displaying the title, “My Role” and incorporated much of the feedback she had received the prior day. One team member said what everyone was thinking: “You’re serious? You are going to let us define your job description?” She nodded yes.

The team focused on the words on display and suggested minor changes. She made the changes immediately and printed out and signed a copy of the role description for every person in the room. From that moment forward, this team formerly in turmoil began to work as a real team. Their project was ultimately completed a few months later than originally planned at inception but much earlier than it might have ever been completed if Angela had not given the team the power to define her role as leader.

Three Big Lessons Learned

1. It takes courage to allow others to decide how you should contribute. Angela was wise beyond her years sensing the need for this powerful display of trust given the team’s recent history. The team members responded in kind by trusting her from that moment.

2. Lack of role clarity is a powerful detractor from high performance in a team environment. Angela’s modeling of this behavior and everyone’s clear understanding of her role pushed them to clarify their roles. There was no ambiguity about who was accountable for what on this project team when Angela was serving as the leader.

3. The situation seemed to call for strong leadership—what it needed was strong servant leadership. The instinct for most of us might have been to assert as command and control leaders. That instinct is often wrong. Angela became an effective leader by serving.

The instinct for most of us might have been to assert as command and control leaders. That instinct is often wrong.

The Bottom Line

It’s hard to feel great about the failures and struggles while we are living through and with them. In reality, they are inevitable, and our biggest mistake would be to ignore the powerful lessons they provide for us. The evolution from project manager to project leader in the real sense of the title demands attention to the failures even more than the successes.

Failure is part of a process and should be thought of as a stepping stone to success. One thing you don’t ever want to fail, however, is your project tools. That’s why there’s ProjectManager, an online collaborative software built with project management in mind. With it’s real-time dashboard views of planning, monitoring and reporting, it gives you the chance to stop failure before it stops your project. Try it out free with this 30-day trial.