Project Management: What To Do When Projects Fail

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Like many project managers, you have probably found that projects rarely go perfectly to plan. And at times, you may have experienced project failure. It happens to even the best project managers and there are several steps you can take in an event of a project failure to safeguard against it happening again in the future.

Project Management Failure – What Is It?

By definition, a project failure is where the project has not delivered where it was required, in line with the expectations. The key words here are the expectations. A project may go over the budget, however, if it provides everything else demanded then it may be considered an overall success. Another example is where a project may deliver all the technical elements, but if it misses just one expectation held by a stakeholder then it could be deemed a failure. Whether a project is a success or failure really depends on the group of stakeholders present and their expectations.

Why Project Management Can Fail

One of the main reasons projects fail is lack of structure in expectations. A project could be completed to budget and on time but if it lacks one element that stakeholders need it will be deemed a failure. So ultimately, the project needs to deliver what the organisation needs to increase positive perceptiveness.

Another reason a project may fail is because it is physically or in some way impossible to deliver. This is particularly important where the project is relied on by many other organisations or other projects. It is important here to avoid assumptions in your planning and ensure every detail is well thought out. It is also important during this stage to have a thorough risk management system.

Projects may also fail because of ineffective management. This may be on behalf of the project manager themselves or a stakeholder or manager within the organisation who is closely linked to the project. In the case of many projects leadership is not discussed as a whole team. Though project managers might find themselves discussion hierarchy in the workplace with superiors, if the employees who are driving the project are not aware of this, progress could be hindered.

There is also the ability for project failure through environmental changes. You may find that the project can become out-dated midway through changes or that your original plan and goals now need to be modified. To help combat potential failures from these areas, project managers are encouraged to make timely decisions, take on smaller projects and manage expectations well.

What Are Some of the Top Reasons Projects Are Cancelled or Fail?

There can be many factors that lead to the cancellation or failure of a project. In many cases project failure can be attributed to either overall business issues or due to management or technicality reasons.

Reasons For Project Cancellation

• Business reasons for project failure
• Business strategy is superseded
• Poor requirements management
• Business benefits not clearly communicated or overstated
• Inability to provide investment capital
• Inappropriate disaster recovery
• Misuse of financial resources
• Overspends in excess of agreed budgets
• Poor project board composition
• Too big of a project
• Lack of communication
• Lack of quality control

Managerial Reasons

• Lack of ability to adapt to new resources
• Issues with clients
• Insufficient risk management
• Insufficient end-user management
• Insufficient domain knowledge
• Insufficient software metrics
• Insufficient training
• Inappropriate procedures and routines
• Lack of management
• Loss of key staff
• Poor management
• Poor software
• Poor contract or financial management
• Poor delegation
• Poor decision-making

Technical Reasons

• Inappropriate testing tools
• Inappropriate technical methods
• Lack of technical standards
• Lack of technical innovation
• Misstatement of technical risk
• Obsolescence of technology 
• Poor quality code
• Poor system testing
• Poor system integration
• Poor data migration
• Poor technical judgement

What You Can Learn From A Failed Project?

The failure of a project can be a good thing for a project manager’s career. It is an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and improve the overall effectiveness of your project management techniques for the future. As we have discovered above, there are a huge variety of reasons projects can fail, from cost to system defaults or fundamental errors. It also depends a lot on the project at hand and stakeholders involved. Two projects may suffer the same error, yet one deemed a success and the other failure – this emphasizes the huge importance on expectations.

There are several things you can take from the failure of a project you are managing. First, you need to be paying attention to details. One small slip-up in this area and an entire project can come undone. Second, don’t lose data. Invest in a project management resource tool (talked about in our previous blog post) to ensure you never lose your own, or a client’s data. This is an absolutely rookie error and with the ease of technological software is now inexcusable.

Third, be organised. You are a project manager because of your organisation and leadership skills so ensure you stay on top of meeting and schedules. Being late or forgetful is simply unprofessional. Fourth, don’t pretend. If you don’t know the answer, don’t make it up. Do however, make a conscious effort to find out and report back to the person who asked you. Fifth, only accept projects you have confidence in completing. Many project managers can become bombarded with commitment and ultimately end up doing a disservice to one or all projects they are managing. Lastly, I think the most important lesson is to learn from your mistakes. You should never make the same mistake more than once and learning from your mistakes in project management will only make you a better leader for future endeavours.

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