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Top Three Causes of Project Failure

~ By Lisa Anderson

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

So much of an organisation's success is tied to project success! Can you think of any significant organisation initiative or improvement that didn't tie to at least one project? I've worked with many organisations, across diverse industries and globally, and I cannot think of a single example. Therefore, what could be more important than figuring out how to ensure project success?

I did a quick survey of clients and business contacts to find the top three causes of project failure. If we address these, we'll greatly increase our chances of success. The survey identified the following as the three most common stumbling blocks on the path to project success:

1. Lack of a Clearly Designated Project Leader

It's amazing how many times this seemingly simple issue arises. There are many reasons, the project team is a group of peers and no one is assigned or assumes leadership. No one wants to assign a project leader because everyone already has a full-time job and is swamped (especially in today's business environment!). Each department assumes the other department will lead the project.

However, there is nothing more important to project success than the project leader. There are countless reasons. A few of the most vital include: the project leader must clearly articulate the project's goals The project leader must facilitate the development of the project plan with clearly designated tasks, milestones and accountabilities. The project leader must proactively address roadblocks and ensure the team completes the tasks on time and within budget. Finally, the project leader must communicate progress to the appropriate parties.

Undoubtedly, your project will derail without a clear project leader!

2. Lack of Clear Expectations and Goals

Following on the heels of no clearly designated project leader is no clear expectations and goals. Even the best project leader cannot succeed without clear expectations and goals. What is the objective of the project? Why is the objective important to the organisation? How does each project team member add value to achieving the goal? Is the goal clear? Is the timing understood?

For example, for one client, the end goal was clear (inventory reduction); however, the project team didn't have clear expectations and goals at first. Thus, the branches had no incentive to share inventory figures, which was a main component in reducing inventory. As a result, progress was largely at a standstill until the project objectives and metrics were clarified.

3. Communication Challenges

Communication challenges are common yet can deter even the best projects. Even in the best of circumstances, it is easy to suffer from miscommunication and confusion. Did you play the game of telephone as a young child? Just in case you haven't, I'll explain, the game starts with a person who communicates a message to the next person. And it continues until the message has gone around to the last person in the circle. By the time it gets to the last person, it never resembles the original message! Thus, it can be a lot of fun to hear the mixed up messages your friends come up with after 10 to 20 interchanges. And this is when each person is trying to convey the correct message. So, imagine what occurs when organisational confusion and politics get involved.

Aside from typical communication issues, there is also a plethora of other communication challenges, ranging from cultural and language communication barriers to functional communication barriers (such as sales people communicating with technicians and finance folks talking with R&D). These can pose a serious roadblock. For example, I've worked with many project teams containing numerous team members where English was a second language. Typically there have been two or three different primary languages. Even with an excellent project leader it can be complex to ensure that communication is clear and that everyone on the team is aligned with the path forward. Otherwise, it can be easy to run around in circles, even well-intentioned ones.

It is vital to communicate, communicate, and communicate. I've found that you have to repeat important project communications multiple times. Try saying it in different ways. Try different communication vehicles. Ask team members for their understanding. Send reminders. Follow-up. Never stop communicating.

According to my clients, if you can mitigate these three most significant causes of project failure, you'll be one of the few to succeed, on-time, on-budget, and on-expectation. Why not become the organisation to "get it right" and pass your competition by accelerating project results?

Lisa Anderson, President of LMA Consulting Group Inc., is a senior supply chain and operations executive and management consultant. To sign up for her free monthly newsletter containing tips and techniques for improving business performance visit the LMA Consulting Group website. She can be reached at 909-630-3943 or email


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