Avoiding Project Failure

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Summary:

If business projects are part of your profession, you know that many projects fail to live up to their potential. Some projects fail to achieve their schedule or budget goals or fail to deliver everything initially promised. Still other projects simply fail altogether. Many of the problems faced by projects can be avoided, or at least contained, by effective project management practices. Using a "Top Ten" list as a framework, this article highlights ten of the most frequent reasons for project failure, and examines some alternatives and remedies for each.

Top Ten Statements suggesting a Project is in trouble
1. “This project is too important to fail.”
Often the response to concerns expressed about some important part of the project, this statement generally sends the message that “negative thinking” is unacceptable - Get over it… Any project, no matter how important, can fail.

Probably the single most dangerous project management attitude is one that denies failure is a possibility. Identifying project problems early and working to address them increases the likelihood of project success.

Team members must be encouraged to voice issues and concerns, not reprimanded for “negative thinking”.

2. “Everyone knows that this budget is unrealistic, just don’t tell the sponsor.”
A project is not a project unless it has a “sponsor” or “client”, a person who funding the effort and ultimately believes that the value of a project is worth the cost. Sometimes a misguided project manager or team leader comes to believe that he or she is a better judge of the client's needs or what is justified than the client. When this occurs, the frequent result is new information suggesting that the initial budget cannot be achieved is ignored or suppressed to avoid “upsetting the sponsor." This goes beyond misguided to unethical if you put yourself in the sponsor’s shoes:

Imagine that you provide a contractor with detailed blueprints for your dream house, a plot of land, and a fixed budget that you both agree to at the beginning of the construction project (your entire life’s savings). Three months into the project, the contractor realizes that there isn’t enough money to complete the project… When do you want to know? As soon as possible! You won’t be happy, but you need timely information to deal with the situation. Spending all of your money for half of a house denies you the chance to make informed decisions about reducing the scope of the house or postponing parts of the construction, or perhaps canceling the project to cut your losses. Good project managers remember that the project belongs to the sponsor.

3. “This is going to be a real stretch and lots of long hours over the next year, but if we work hard enough we might pull it off.”
This is really related to statement number 2 (unrealistic budget), although it sounds like the person speaking, usually the project manager, is not admitting to him or herself that there really isn’t enough resource or time allocated to get the work done (this is called “being in denial”). This statement usually precedes confusion and overtime, is usually followed by frustration and blaming, and almost never followed by a successful project. As a rule, if a credible schedule can’t be developed at the start of a project with the staff assigned working full time, it’s pretty safe to say that the project will not be accomplished on time and within budget. Planning on “Going to the whip” and over-committing the project team from the start of the project almost always leads to one or more of the following:

  • Morale Problems
  • Personnel Turnover
  • Failure to achieve the goals of the project as scheduled, scoped and staffed

If credible project plans cannot be constructed that suggest the project is feasible within the schedule and budget allocated, this issue should be addressed with the sponsor.

4. “Aaarg! The Network is down again!”
O.K., we have all heard this, or something similar (“the copy machine is broken”, “the truck won’t start”, “the parts aren’t in stock”, etc.) from time to time… Murphy is an honorary member of every project team. The point is

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About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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