Failed Projects

Dick Billows, PMP

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

“This project has to succeed; it’s critical to our organization. We can’t have a failed project!” You have probably heard this a hundred times during your career. Yet many organizations have lots of failed projects. Sometimes they’re as high as 70%.  The failure rate for projects sponsored by certain executives are even higher because they have no idea how to sponsor a project. Sometimes failed projects are delivering so little value to the organization that the executives stop work on them. But that’s pretty rare because often there is too much political and financial capital invested to admit failure.  So the failed project continues even when it is so out of control that no one can find a way to salvage it.

Most organizations don’t learn from their project failures so they have one failed project after another. In those organizations, 70% of the projects fail to deliver the scope for anywhere near the planned cost. Every project failure should lead to a detailed investigation of what went wrong. Organization must circulate that information to executives and project managers. Unfortunately, very often the failures are hidden and there is no investigation into what went wrong. Enterprise Project Management Main Page

Here are the three causes we often find in our review of clients’ failed projects.

Failed Projects: A Vague Scope Statement

Lots of projects have weak scope definitions. But on failed projects, the scope is so vague that it establishes few limitations on what is included in the project. So scope creep is rampant. People at all levels in all functional areas add new features to the project every week. Here are some examples of additions: new software that the IT department wouldn’t give them; new equipment that didn’t meet the capital approval process; other “goodies” that are good ideas but don’t create value for the project. Project Failure Warning Signs

The scope has to define specific deliverables the project must produce. That scope of the project must be approved before any work starts. The scope statement itself must include quantified acceptance criteria. These are metrics that can be objectively measured. As an example, a customer service improvement project might have a scope of “Less than 3% of the customers have to call back about the same problem.” That metric gives the executives, the sponsor and the project manager a tool to judge whether user requirements and change requests are necessary to produce the deliverable.

Failed Projects: Lack of Data in Planning and Tracking

Another characteristic of failed projects is project plans without data. They don’t have estimates of the hours of work required for the tasks and deliverables. Instead, the sponsor plucks a completion date that sounds good out of the sky. Cost estimates are also missing except for general wild guesses. As a result, people who are completing tasks or purchasing items have no constraints on the time or money they spend. This is bad enough during planning but it is disastrous when it comes to tracking actual results. Team members’ status reports don’t give the number of hours and dollars they have spent on their task and an estimate of the hours and dollars required to complete their tasks. Instead they give a subjective estimate like “I’m in greenlight status.” This doesn’t give the sponsor or project manager any ability to decide where the project’s problems are or even if they exist. Project Rescue

Failed Projects: No Accountability for Results

Finally, failed projects have little or no personal accountability for results. Some team members are working on a specific task. Others are part of a more general effort involving the entire project team. But few team members are held accountable for producing a specific deliverable, by a certain date, for a specified number of hours or dollars. As a result, it is impossible to identify who should solve a problem on a task.

Failed Projects: Summary

Here are the characteristics that all failed projects have in common:

  • They take place in organizations that have no standard project processes
  • The scope of these projects are vague
  • There are no standard planning, tracking and reporting processes
  • All projects are ad hoc. Each project manager makes up the rules about how to manage their project
  • No one is held accountable for delivering results

Organizations won’t change their project management processes until the pain from failed projects is too great to ignore.

Learn how to use project management best practices and avoid failures in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish.  Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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