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Why Will My Project Fail?

If you’re a project manager, or about to begin a project with a team, we have some data that might scare you. While statistics vary across industries, the general consensus is that the number of projects that fail is too high.

One study found that 17% of large-scale IT projects failed so spectacularly that they nearly brought the entire company to ruin. Of those projects that did consider themselves a success, 45% went over budget and delivered 56% less value than predicted. (Kind of makes you wonder about their definition of the word “success.”)

Scared yet? You should be. But what do you do? After all, you don’t want to be a manager who looks back on a failed project and asks, “How did this happen?”

Swap hindsight for foresight. When you meet with your team for the first time, instead of asking, “What are our steps toward success?”, turn this question around. Look your team in the eyes and ask: “What will make this project fail?”

 

What causes project failure?

Identifying from the start the potential obstacles and gaps that will send your project off-course and over-budget can save you time, energy, and valuable resources. Author Tom Kendrick distilled over 35 years of project-management experience and identified the three most common reasons for project failure:

  1. An impossible deliverable. Example: End world hunger by the end of this quarter.
  2. Unrealistic constraints and/or lack of resources. Example: Design a new operating system for the company in one week, with two team members and a budget of $100.
  3. A lack of direction or guidance to understand the project.

Poor management is the leading cause of project failure, according to Kendrick, and while the first two items on the list can be resolved by changing the parameters of the project, the last item—arguably the most important—requires a change in the way leadership is managed.

 

How can your team guarantee success?

One of the best ways to lead a team to success is to spot failure before it begins to take root. “For a given project, you can never know the precise outcome in advance, but through review of data from earlier work and project planning…you can better understand the odds and take action to improve them,” explains Kendrick in his book Identifying and Managing Project Risk..

 

If you reverse the three reasons for failure above, you can see that there are three things that projects need in order to succeed:

  1. Reasonable expectations
  2. Appropriate and sufficient resources
  3. Clear guidance and leadership

Take the time to ensure that these three factors are present before you begin by asking your team to reflect on and discuss the following questions, which address the potentials for both success and failure:

  • Is this project feasible?

  • Do we have the resources we need, including team members with appropriate areas of expertise, time for complete execution, and financial support to undertake the project?

  • Does everyone on the team understand the core objectives of the project?

  • Does everyone agree on common goals for the project?

  • Does everyone understand his or her role, and the relationship of the various roles on the team?

In another book, Rescue the Problem Project, Kendrick is quick to assure that careful self-management can prevent your project from becoming another statistic: it is in your hands.

“Projects do not self-destruct,” he says. “They need help. The people on and around the project provide that assistance.”