3 big reasons why projects fail

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I’m not a big fan of failure, but my life’s work must account for the potential for an undertaking to fail. Though I hate to admit it, I’ve been a part of more unsuccessful projects/programs in my twenty-five (25) years of building teams, people, and software than I really care to admit. The good news from these failures is that I’ve been able to deduce three (3) reasons why projects/programs fail:

  1. Unclear and unmeasurable objectives: Too often, an organization will start a project but not have a clear idea of what the project will do nor will it be able to describe objectives that can be met along the way. For example, I was inherited the lead project manager role on a project to implement a certain hardware system. The company had already purchased the components for the system, but never defined why they purchased it. Because they didn’t know the “value add” of the system, the company changed scope throughout the implementation because it really didn’t know why they were building it in the first place. Needless to say, this project cost far more than it should have, both in terms of additional capital outlay needed and in terms of time. Had the company justified the purchase and identified a clear scope of effort to implement the system, I have no doubt it could have succeeded. But, in my opinion, it did not.
  2. Shortage of appropriate resources: One of the biggest problems that lack of objectives will create is a misidentification/misappropriation of resources. In the case of the hardware system, there was no one within the company who understood the purchased technology enough to be able to implement it. Had this knowledge gap been identified, then perhaps training could have been acquired ahead of the purchased, but since the purchase was made without understanding its purpose, then there was no way for the company to know what resources it needed ahead of time. Because the company didn’t perform a needs assessment ahead of the purchase, it ended up spending way too much time on learning instead of building/testing/implementing the purchase.
  3. Unclear leadership structure: This one is a big pet peeve of mine. Any time I walk into an organization and am told that I report to someone, but have a “dotted line” to someone else, I immediately recognize a symptom of failure. There’s an old cliché that always comes to mind: Too many chefs in the kitchen, and a dotted-line reporting structure will always cause conflict when there are differing interests between “bosses.”

From my wide and deep experience, I can safely say that these three (3) reasons for failure are easy to remedy and address. All that’s needed is upfront analysis before a project/program is started that includes an as-is versus to-be gap analysis. From this gap analysis, definable requirements should emerge that will define the project’s objectives.

Or organizations can spend more time and money than what should be necessary and cause projects to fail.

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