Why do projects fail?

Projects, whether they are system, transformation or operationally focused, are too often judged to be “failures”, while the question of why they fail seems akin to asking “What is the meaning of life?”

Every program and Project Manager has their view of why projects fail. The way a Project Manager answers that question tells you a lot about the way they think, and most importantly, they way they manage projects.

I am often disappointed because the response is simply “Communication.” While I don’t disagree that poor communication is usually at least partially to blame, too often that response is followed by a long silence with no elaboration – in much the same way as “42” is the unequivocal answer to “What is the meaning of life?”

The kind of answer that encourages me to join the debate is “In many cases, I’ve found it’s the lack of science behind many estimating models.” or “Scope and variation management.” or “Lack of formal and quantified risk analysis.”

It’s not so much the actual answer I’m looking for, but the story behind it. To me, that tells me if it’s an experience they have learnt from, and will do their utmost to avoid in the future, or simply something they read in a magazine. It also demonstrates experientially whether a quest for continuous improvement and excellence is integral to their DNA.

So how do I answer the question about why projects fail? I like to think of this question in reverse – what common element, or group of elements, makes projects succeed?

On a project, you’re constantly thrown curve balls, new issues to be resolved. And there are usually competing views about the cause of the issue – and the solution.

That’s why I believe it’s ultimately about relationships. Think about it… every aspect of project management involves building or managing a relationship – from agreeing scope, to recruiting the right people, to planning, scheduling, understanding dependencies, questioning a provided status report, management reporting, risk identification and mitigation.

I believe that strong relationships are at the core of the discipline of great project delivery. The way relationships are formed and maintained – especially those between the client and the consulting team, as well as within the delivery team itself – is often the difference between success and failure.

At Prescience, we build strong relationships with our clients by providing straight-forward, pragmatic and relevant advice that helps them make better business decisions. We actively seek out clients – and colleagues – who challenge us, who are tough and honest, and reciprocally demanding of continuous improvement. That openness helps build strong
relationships and provides the foundation for success.

But that’s just my view… I’d love to hear your thoughts on why projects fail as well as what we can do to turn the tables to make them succeed. Join our Project Management and Controls LinkedIn group to join in the discussion.