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Is Your Project Doomed Before You've Even Started?

Why Do Projects Fail?

Every year, companies launch new exciting projects that they hope will improve their products and processes, and ultimately make their business more money. But as with most profitable activities, there's invariably a risk of failure. There is always a proportion of projects that don't deliver the expected results, and that is understandable in the competitive world of business. However, over the years the percentage of projects that fail has been on the increase, wasting millions of dollars in poorly defined and ultimately unsuccessful projects.

Some projects get abandoned after their initial planning. Others only realise half way through that they can't make a go of it, and try to cut corners in order to see the project through to the end. So why do projects fail, and what can be done to make sure your future projects are a success?

Project Schedule

Anyone who has been part of a team will know that big projects rarely go exactly as planned, and the reasons for these failures vary. Project managers often blame the project sponsor, the project itself, or the people involved. But the real culprit is often the project schedule.

Project schedules are crucial to a successful project. An ill-planned schedule can create a lot of added cost, wasted resources and a poor learning experience for the employees involved. When you have a poor project schedule it usually results in poor time management, leading to missed deadlines and projects taking extra time. A good schedule assists you in managing the complexity of your project. It helps you determine the length of the project, the activity duration, the team size, the scope of the work, how many resources are required, communication issues, etc. The schedule also helps you manage resources by showing how much support is needed at various points in time. A project schedule does not need to be difficult to put together, but sometimes pressure from the top can lead to unrealistic timelines being proposed.

Poor Communication

One of the most common myths about project failure is that the project was doomed from the start. Most of the time this is not true, but it can feel this way when communication is poor and people's opinions are not being listened to. There is a fundamental truth in the fact that project managers and teams need to communicate, and communicate well.

Communication is crucial whether it is deciding on the right course of action, documenting your progress or dealing with conflict, you can't expect your team to work together successfully without effective communication. When projects fail, it's often because they did not communicate in the correct way. It is not good enough to just send regular update emails and hope they get read - the communication needs to be relevant, useful and engaging. Without good communication, key information will not get conveyed to the stakeholders. So the trick is to not only remember to communicate, but to do so in the right ways.

Lack of Resources

Another reason why projects fail is a lack of adequate resources. Projects will often touch many areas of a company, and you need representatives from all the different parts of the business. There is often an expectation that everyone needs to be fully available for the project, as well as carrying out their day-to-day work. While this may be manageable in the short term, it is not sustainable for any length of time. People will become stressed and burnt out, which is never good for a business.

When insufficient resources are available, project delays may push it further into failure. However, having enough resources isn't the full answer. To launch a successful project you need to have enough resources from the right areas of the business - people who can both advise and make informed decisions.

How Do We Avoid These pitfalls?

Good project management requires everyone involved to have the same vision of success, to commit, follow-up, and resolve. Projects can be very fragile, and a single problem could cause a project to collapse. This is why proper planning, resources and vision are essential for a positive outcome.

Vision and Goals

The success of a project depends on its sponsors' vision for success, which may not always be communicated clearly during its development. All too often, though, the true reasons for poor results are hidden in the finer detail. Only later, when the project is under way, and problems have become visible, does a true picture of its likely effect emerge. By then, however, it may be too late to salvage it, and people involved have wasted their time and resources, ultimately costing them money and their company reputation.

It is important that all project sponsors, project managers, and their teams are held to a very high standard. They must be held accountable for all results, and this includes the quality and quantity of the results achieved. Clear expectations should be spelt out, both verbally and in writing, so that senior management is aware of what is expected. Without clear expectations, it is easy for project team members to become dissatisfied and confused, especially when progress is slow. If project managers want to be successful, they need to consider both the benefits and the risks before setting project expectations. The project success hinges on clear, measurable, attainable goals. If these goals are not set, project management inevitably falls short. The difference between a good result and a bad one is usually a clearly defined objective, straightforward plan and good leadership. When project managers have both clearly defined objectives and a method for achieving them, the best results are likely to occur.

Planning and Process

In most cases the failure of a project is the result of poor planning and process. When an organization adopts bad project management practices, they quickly discover that time is wasted, their budget is being depleted, and their employees are not really productive. When project managers make the effort to improve their processes, they see that their team members are happy and productive.

Project managers are often the first to admit that project planning can be time consuming and lacks vigorous scrutiny. However, without good planning it's hard to keep track of everything you need to do, and you often miss deadlines. There is an old saying that projects fail because they fail to plan. This is a common theme in most Project Management books, and with good reason: a lack of planning is one of the most common causes of failure in projects. In fact, a 2000 study found that 80% of projects failed because planners did not do a thorough job in defining tasks and milestones up front. Project managers need to do the planning themselves, not leave it to others, or they run the risk of project failure. A project plan is made up of four interlinked areas:

  1. Define the deliverables - what is the project going to deliver and ultimately achieve

  2. Define your timeline - what are the planned start and end dates of the project

  3. Decide on the milestones - what are the crucial events of the project and when will they occur

  4. Plan your resources - decide on who will be part of the team

Lack of Resources

Project managers frequently expect too much from their team members and fail to meet those expectations. They often push too hard without considering the possible consequences and this can lead to poor results and poor outcomes.

It would rarely be practical to bring in a whole new team just to work on a project. Not only would this add to the cost of the project, but the project team would end up with people who would almost certainly not have the experience or knowledge to be able to answer specialised questions or make informed decisions. A better solution is to relieve the project team from some of their normal day-to-day duties. This can be very easy to do and will have a dramatic positive impact on the project. If something like this is implemented you are much more likely to get the right mix of people in the project team, with a much higher engagement. If you end up bolting projects on to people's existing workload you find far fewer people are willing to volunteer for a project, and motivation within the team will be reduced. A little bit of planning at the start can have a positive effect throughout the whole project.


In summary, it is essential to have a plan in place before you start the project. The rationale behind this is that it will allow you to have a clear idea of what you are about to do, avoid wastage of time, money, and effort. Additionally lack of resources, and poor communication are major causes of project failure. However, all these mistakes are very easy to prevent and get right, so avoiding these problems should not be difficult if you address them from the start. Once this is done you will be in a position to have a very successful project.

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