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Reasons Why Projects Fail

~ By Tom Carlos

Businessman in a black suit holding up a white sign reading failed

In a perfect world every project would be "on time and within budget." But reality (especially the proven statistics) tells a very different story. It's not uncommon for projects to fail. Even if the budget and schedule are met, one must ask "did the project deliver the results and quality we expected?" True project success must be evaluated on all three components. Otherwise, a project could be considered a "failure."

Have you ever seen a situation where projects begin to show signs of disorganisation, appear out of control, and have a sense of doom and failure? Have you witnessed settings where everyone works in a silo and no one seems to know what the other team member is doing? What about team members who live by the creed "I'll do my part (as I see fit) and after that, it's their problem." Even worse is when team members resort to finger-pointing. Situations similar to these scenarios point to a sign that reads "danger." And if you read the fine print under the word "danger" it reads, "your project needs to be brought under control or else it could fail."

When projects begin to show signs of stress and failure, everyone looks to the project manager for answers. It may seem unfair that the burden of doom falls upon a single individual. But this is the reason why you chose to manage projects for a living! You've been trained to recognise and deal with these types of situations.

There are many reasons why projects (both simple and complex) fail; the number of reasons can be infinite. However, if we apply the 80/20 rule the most common reasons for failure can be found in the following list:

Poorly managedUndefined objectives and goalsLack of management commitment
Lack of a solid project planLack of user inputLack of organisational support
Centralised proactive management initiatives to combat project riskEnterprise management of budget resourcesProvides universal templates and documentation
Poorly defined roles and responsibilitiesInadequate or vague requirementsStakeholder conflict
Team weaknessesUnrealistic timeframes and tasksCompeting priorities
Poor communicationInsufficient resources (funding and personnel)Business politics
Overruns of schedule and costEstimates for cost and schedule are erroneousLack of prioritisation and project portfolio management
Scope creepNo change control processMeeting end user expectations
Ignoring project warning signsInadequate testing processesBad decisions

Even with the best of intentions or solid plans, project can go awry if they are not managed properly. All too often, mishaps can occur (and usually do). This is when the project manager must recognise a warning sign and take action. If you understand the difference between symptoms and problems and can spot warning signs of project failure, your training will help you take steps to right the ship before it keels over. Yes, it's the project manager's responsibility to correct the listing no one else. In addition to applying the processes and principles taught in project management class, you can also use your personal work skills of communication, management, leadership, conflict resolution, and diplomacy to take corrective action.

During the course of managing a project, the project manager must monitor activities (and distractions) from many sources and directions. Complacency can easily set in. When this happens, the process of "monitoring" breaks down. This is why the project manager must remain in control of a project and be aware of any activity which presents a risk of project failure. Yes, this is why "you are paid the big bucks."

Tom Carlos has over 20 years of cumulative experience in business, technical, and training environments. He is a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and member of the Sacramento Valley PMI Chapter. For other articles on similar subject, you can visit Thomas Carlos Consulting or contact him at


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