Projects fail. It happens. And while nobody likes to admit that it could be their project, it could. We have seen projects fail for all kinds of reasons, but they typically manifest in one or more of what we have identified as the 10 most common fail points. The good news is that these failures are also largely avoidable. It begins with a little introspection and, like any good project, some careful planning.
1. LACK OF A DEFINED END STATE
Every project needs a well-defined end state from a business, operations, and customer perspective. Without clear success criteria and vision, the project team doesn’t have the true north it needs to gauge whether it is approaching success or not.
THE FIX: Start with a detailed end state that fully describes the solution once implemented, along with expected timing, costs, and benefits. Make sure the project team is clear on what company strategy or imperative it supports and how.
2. LACK OF EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP
Business critical projects require a single, powerful, and empowered decision maker, because it’s not always practical or effective to look to a committee for direction. There needs to be an understanding of the strategic imperative and what it will take to achieve it. A committed and knowledgeable executive sponsor is needed to guide the project through the inevitable trade-off decisions.
THE FIX: Identify a passionate and empowered leader who becomes accountable for the success of the project. Ensure they have are given the time and resources required to achieve success.
3. TOP DOWN BUDGETS AND TIMELINES
Too often, targets are set before detailed knowledge about what it will take have surfaced. We have never seen something done sooner and cheaper than what it will really take simply because someone powerful wished it to be so. Instead, we’ve seen things take longer and cost more than they should because a critical conversation was not had early on— when the truth about what it would take didn’t align with executive expectations.
THE FIX: Engage delivery and operations teams early in the planning effort. They need to buy into the how, the timing, and the benefits. Involving them early will improve your accuracy for timing, costs, expected benefits, and risks. It also begets buy-in from the outset if they believe in the importance and achievability of the effort.
4. LACK OF BROADLY CAPABLE PROJECT/PROGRAM LEADERSHIP
The role of a project manager (PM)/leader on a large project is the single biggest transmission and translation point between strategy and execution. They direct the work of all the project team members, SMEs, partners, and vendors working on the program. The right person for this role will have the ability to get the most out of the team and make great real-time decisions and adjustments. They will know when to push back and when to accept things as fact and adjust. An experienced and talented project manager will detect risks, resolve issues, and drive course corrections much more rapidly and effectively than an administrative or less experienced PM. We have seen multimillion-dollar projects fail due to clients hiring a “bargain” PM. A lesser resource can be the source of longer timelines, higher costs, lower quality, and unpleasant surprises, including total program failure at a point when it was seemingly on track.
THE FIX: Don’t skimp. Put a pro in this role. Messing this decision up can decrease the effectiveness of everyone working on the project and be your single largest risk point. This role is about leadership above all other required skills.
5. DEPENDENCE ON UNPROVEN TECHNOLOGY
It’s not that you shouldn’t pioneer something. Just do it with your eyes wide open in terms of risk and contingencies. A failure in comprehensively understanding a technology can result in huge failures — and unexpected costs — in the project roadmap.
THE FIX: Press the technology team on details about how something will work, why, and where it has been implemented with success. Ask about past issues, complications, or failures, and mitigation paths if something goes south. And, if you don’t have the expertise to assess these things, bring it in.
6. OVERLY OPTIMISTIC VIEWS OF PACKAGE SOLUTIONS
Big packages can be part of the solution, but they are not *the* solution. If you go that route, try not to convince yourself of the important uniqueness of your non-differentiating processes. Lack of a reality check can massively increase costs, time, and failure risks.
THE FIX: The closer you stay to the standard processes that come with the system, the lower the costs and time to deploy and sustain the solution. If you sense a need to bend the system too much to fit your need, it’s time to pause.
7. POOR CULTURE FOCUS, LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
It’s a thing that nobody likes to admit is a problem, yet an unhealthy culture can kill almost anything. To be successful, project teams need to be fully committed and feel as though what they are doing is important. Moreover, they need open lines of communication when they identify risks or issues.
THE FIX: Assess culture *before* stepping into a project. If the company culture is not where you want it to be, create a project culture of trust and openness. To successfully run a project you need a true sense of progress and risks. The later you find out, the less you can do about it and the more it will cost.
8. SME RESOURCE ALLOCATION
Even if you have a very capable team, if they’re not getting the right inputs you’re not going to get the right outputs. Often, a company will appoint SMEs to a project, but fail to enable their allocation by reducing other responsibilities, or by letting their manager know the project will be a priority. The result? Project teams can’t get the inputs they need from the right people in the right time frame, and delays and mistakes begin to pile up.
THE FIX: Be realistic. If the project is important, make resource allocation important. Either allocate people as needed or change the timelines to accommodate their lack of availability.
9. LACK OF TRUST WITH VENDORS
In the working relationship between a company and their vendors, there must be enough knowledge about how the other works and what is needed to be successful. Vendors should be held accountable to deliver what they promised, but they shouldn’t be whipping dogs when things struggle, either. Vendors also need to be able to hold their customers accountable for their side of the deal.
THE FIX: Be transparent with each other about the way you work, and your expectations. Vendors should honor the relationship with their client and be open about how things are going— good or bad. Inserting a third party that knows both sides can help keep both parties operate at their best.
10. LACK OF COMMUNICATION
The chance of failure skyrockets when there is a breakdown in communication between business/strategy and build teams. Requirements can’t just be chucked over a wall with the assumption they’ll be understood and met. Likely, the business will discover that the build team is struggling with something, either because there is a misunderstanding or there is a sense they can’t propose an alternative. And yet, many times the requirement is conceptual and not literal, and the business is fine or even happier with an alternative — and the work is done much more quickly.
THE FIX: Openness and trust are vital. Involve build teams early and often, so there is a clear line of communication on what will be built, why, and how— with an open dialogue about risks, timelines, opportunities, and alternatives.