Project or Management Failures?

Google ‘reasons for project failure’ and you get nearly 5 million responses! The question this blog asks is how many project failures are caused by project management shortcomings and how many failed projects were set up to fail by the organisation’s management?

The Project Delivery Capability (PDC) framework described in our White Paper Project Delivery Capability (PDC) offers a useful lens to separate the failings generated by project performance from those imposed on the project, inadvertently, or otherwise by organisational management.

The list below separates the root cause of failure into four categories based on this model:

Initiation: failures associated with project identification, business case development, requirements definition and portfolio selection; including establishing initial realistic time and cost budgets based on pragmatic risk assessments.

Project: failures associated with the project team failing to apply effective project management processes as defined in resources such as the PMBOK® Guide, ISO 21500 and PRINCE2

Support: failures associated with the lack of effective senior management support to the project (Capability Support), including inadequate sponsorship, failing to provide appropriate resources, inadequate business inputs, lack of direction/decisions and allowing excessive change.

Benefits: the failure to realise the intended value from the project’s deliverables associated with poor organisational change management, end use adoption and cultural resistance (for more on the overall scope of change see our White Paper, Organisational Change Management).

The table below is based on an amalgamation of dozens of lists found through a Google search.

Reason for Failure Cause
Inadequate business case
A good business case will clearly demonstrate the business benefit of delivering a project and define the objectives, requirements and goals.
Initiation
Undefined objectives and goals
This is always a problem, if the organisation does not know what it wants, it is impossible to scope a project to deliver the ‘unknown’.
Initiation
Inadequate or vague requirements
This is only a problem if the organisation fails to allow adequate time and appropriate contingencies in the overall scope of the project to define and firm up requirements. Defined requirements are essential for the project to be able to deliver a successful outcome.
Initiation
Unrealistic timeframes and budgets; unachievable objectives
Fact free planning is always a problem. Initial ‘rough order of magnitude’ estimates need appropriate contingencies in the initial business case. The project outputs need to be feasible.
Initiation
Lack of prioritisation and project portfolio management
Causing competing priorities leading to inadequate support and resourcing for projects.
Initiation
Estimates for cost and schedule are erroneous
Estimates should be based on solid foundations. Unrealistic targets are unlikely to be achieved.
Initiation / Project
Failure to set and manage expectations
Unrealistic expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled. From the start of the initiation through the life of the project effective communication to set and maintain realistic expectations is vital.
Initiation / Project
Business politics
Lack of discipline within executive/senior management. Only present is the organisation is poorly governed and lacks a rigorous portfolio management process. Selected projects should be supported by management.
Initiation / Benefits
Cultural and ethical misalignment
Misalignment between the project team and the business or other organization it serves will inevitably cause problems.
Initiation / Benefits
Lack of a solid project plan
The failure to develop an effective project plan guarantees the project will fail. The type of planning required depends on the project methodology. Some specifics are included below
Project
Poor estimating
Failing to use historical information, formulae, and questions to make sure that the estimate is not a GUESStimate.
Project
Poor processes/documentation
Appropriate processes and documentation are essential for project success.
Project
Poor risk management
All projects are inherently risky. Effective risk management reduces the degree of uncertainty to an acceptable level.
Project
Overruns of realistic schedule and cost estimates
This is a project failing. Either due to poor management/motivation of the project team or poor risk assessment (leading to inadequate contingencies) or poor estimating.
Project
Failure to track progress
Tracking progress against the plan and adapting performance is central to effective project management.
Project
Poor Testing
Failing to adequately test project deliverables; including:
– Poor requirements which cannot be tested
– Failing to design a testable system
– Failing to develop a realistic and effective test plan
– Failing to test effectively with skilled staff
– Inadequate time and budget allowed for testing.
Project
Poorly defined roles and responsibilities
The organisations management is responsible for defining roles and responsibilities in the overall management stakeholder community; the project manager is responsible for the organisation within the project team.
Project / Support
No change control process / Scope creep
A lack of effective change management processes is primarily a project failing, however, organisational management should require effective change management to be in place and support the change management processes.
Project / Support
Team weaknesses – Inadequate / incorrectly skilled resources
Having people who are ill-prepared to complete a task can be worse than not having anyone. The organisation is responsible for providing adequate internal resources for the project, the project is responsible for defined training and procuring appropriate contracted resources.
Support / Project
Lack of user input
The organisation is responsible for organising the necessary input from end users. The project is responsible for requesting and defining its needs and making appropriate use of the information provided.
Support / Project
Lack of management commitment / Lack of organisational support
The organisation is responsible for properly supporting the projects it has initiated.
Support
Ineffective or no sponsorship
Ineffective project sponsorship is almost a guarantee of failure.
Support
Poorly managed – project manager not trained/skilled
The organisation is responsible for appointing an appropriate project manager and providing him/her with appropriate support, training and coaching.
Support
Inflexible processes and procedures, templates and documentation
Any imposed process needs to be as light  as practical to meet the governance needs of the organisation without inhibiting the work of the project.
Support
Insufficient or Inadequate resources / lack of committed resources
(funding and personnel)
The organisation is responsible for properly resourcing the projects it has initiated. If the resources don’t exist or are already fully committed elsewhere, this is an initiation failure; if they are simply not made available it is a support failure.
Support / Initiation
Poor communication / Stakeholder engagement
People tend to fear what they don’t know, therefore effective communication with stakeholders is vital if the project is to capture their support, and keep it. The project is responsible for project based communications; the organisation change manager (sponsor) is responsible for communication in support of the overall change initiative.
Benefits / Project
Poor or ineffective organisational change management
The organisation has to implement, accept and use the project’s deliverables to generate value. Failures at the organisational change level mean most of the planned benefits cannot be realised.
Benefits
Stakeholder conflict
The organisation is responsible for properly supporting the projects it has initiated. This includes the ‘through life’ management of stakeholders starting prior to initiation and continuing through to the realisation of the
benefits.
Benefits
Inability or unwillingness to stop a project after approval
‘Death march’ projects destroy value. A key element of effective portfolio management is to stop wasting money and resources on projects that can no longer contribute value to the organisation.
Benefits

Of the 29 causes of failure outlined above, only 7 are exclusively the province of project management. The other 76% involve or are exclusively the province of the organisation’s general and executive management as part of an overall ‘Project Delivery Capability’!

This overall capability of an organisation to realise value from an investment in a project starts with selecting the right project to do for the right reasons, then doing the work of the project effectively and efficiently, and then making effective use of the project’s outputs to create value. Mess up any of the early stages and there are no benefits to manage. If the organisation fails to implement the changes effectively, the potential benefits are not realised.

The project manager is only responsible for the bit in the middle – the ‘doing of the project’, a steering committee, sponsor or other management entity is responsible for the beginning and end parts of the overall process involved in PDC. Even the 24% of failures assigned to project management have a link back to the role of the Project Director within PDC. The organisation should provide oversight, training and support to ensure effective processes are used by their project managers and teams. Conversely, a skilled project manager may be able to overcome some of the organisational failings identified above; by managing upwards and operating effectively within the organisation’s political systems a skilled project manager can cover some failings, others are fundamental and will result in a failure regardless of the efforts of the project team.

Therefore based on this table, it is reasonable to determine PDC is an executive and general management responsibility. The ‘project governance’ requirement within PDC is for the Board to ensure executive and general management accept this responsibility and excel in creating value for the organisation.

Based on this assessment, my personal feeling is we as project practitioners need to stop referring to ‘project failures’  every time a project fails to deliver the expected value and start talking about ‘business failures’ when the organisation’s  management fails to effectively manage or support the work and as a consequence, fails to achieve the intended/expected value.

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15 responses to “Project or Management Failures?

  1. Pat, good analysis. I saw it first on the AICD string.

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  3. Great article Pat. It is interesting to note how many of the failures, management or project; have their root cause in either ineffective communication or no communication at all.

    • Agree completely but communication on its own is not enough. The communication needs to be effective in building consensus! The good news is PMI has ramped up the attention paid to communications and stakeholders in the PMBOK® Guide 5th Edition – Stakeholder Management now has a Chapter on its own.

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  6. Nice analysis, but it is important to note that while 24% are exclusively the domain of the Project Management, another 24% is partially attributable as well. While that is less than 50%, I think that most of the items related to Benefits, specifically Organizational Change Management also involve Project Management. As that is a core part of the project, up there with testing, it needs to be managed. If a PM doesn’t take responsibility for making sure that everyone follows through, they should share the blame.

    I do agree with the point that sometimes, it really is management’s fault, or some other entity outside control of the project team. It is always important to realize that situation so the team doesn’t beat themselves up.

    -Pie

    • Agree! We are planning to take the analysis and categorisation further – in the end there is always some level of joint responsibility between senior management and the project team across virtually all of the 29 items.

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