Four Common Reasons Why Projects Fail

By Cynthia K. West, Ph.D., V.P. Project Insight

Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI) holds that all organizations perform two kinds of work: operational work and projects. Due to the repetitive nature of operational work, it is easier to systematize processes. However, because projects have finite start and end dates, are unique in nature, and involve mixed team players, they are more difficult to systematize and to develop sound methodologies and processes for.

Most organizations have experienced projects that did not end on time, were over budget, or changed in scope over time. There are many pitfalls that can sink projects. Here we will focus on four basic reasons why projects fail. Because most project teams are comprised of at least three sets of players including executive management, project managers, and team members or resources, we will take a look at each issue from all three vantage points, and then provide suggested solutions.

Challenge #1 - Lack of Visibility of all Projects

A common reason why projects fail is related to visibility. All three tiers of the project team, executive management, project managers, and team members, need access to the right level of information at the right time.

Executive Management

Executives often complain that they do not have visibility into all current enterprise projects. They often do not have access to the project schedules in real-time. Sometimes project managers present the plan at the outset of the project, then become gatekeepers of the schedule, claiming to executives that the schedule has not been updated recently and is not ready to be shared. The sponsors of a project and the executives do not have access to a schedule or reports until it is too late to either re-direct the effort or to cancel the project. The net result that management cares about is the cost of the schedule overruns to the company.

Project Managers

Project managers often put together a schedule and plan at the outset of a project. The schedule does not always get updated for a variety of reasons. The project managers are so preoccupied with managing issues and re-organizing resources that they do not have time to update the tasks on the schedule and review their impacts.

In fast paced environments, project managers are asked to work on several projects at one time. Many project managers attempt to keep pace with the task updates on their project schedules. Those that do, end up acting as 'glorified administrators,' spending a lot of time asking resources about task progress.

Project managers often lack visibility into all of the projects their resources are working on. Many times they share team members with other project managers, so they may not know exactly what tasks the resource is working on that day.

Team Members

The most frequently heard complaint from team members is that they lack visibility on a day to day basis about the tasks that they are supposed to work on. If they are working on multiple projects at one time, they are often confused about task priority.

Solution #1 - Publish Projects to a Visible Location

The best solutions are a combination of tools, process, and people-based changes. The tool portion of this solution is to provide the team with a centralized location for publishing all project schedules. The simplest way to share project schedules is to post project files in a network folder, setting permissions on the folders using Windows folder and group permissions for access rights.

A better solution is to push projects and corresponding documents to Share Point, or other intranet or extranet solution, again setting access rights. The best tool for the job is to provide a complete enterprise project management solution where all projects are centralized in one database. If the team uses a web based system, then project information may be accessed from remote if team members travel, work from remotely, or need to update information from client offices.

The process part of the solution is to empower team members to update their own tasks in the centralized system. Obviously there are some serious limitations to this if the team is simply posting information on the network, versioning being the biggest issue. However, if an enterprise, web-based project management solution is used, then team members may update their own tasks and the information is presented in real-time. This relieves the project manager from the administrative aspect of getting task updates from team members. It also has the effect of pushing the work to the appropriate level, that is, to the person actually performing the work. In addition, the executive management team has real-time visibility into all projects, their percentage complete, actual hours spent and the financial impact.

The success of the implementation involves executive management. Executives must communicate to all team members the importance of updating tasks and projects on a daily basis. The leadership of top management cannot be minimized. With Project Insight implementations, we have found through experience that the most successful teams are those whose leadership team has reinforced the request for team member and project manager updates through incorporating the behavior change in performance evaluations, MBOs, and other measurement drivers. If the executive leadership is lacking, then any attempt to change behavior through implementing process changes and software solutions will ultimately fail.

Challenge #2 - Unclear Project Objectives

Most organizations have more opportunities and project initiatives than they can ever hope to fulfill. Many companies embark upon more initiatives than they probably should, causing over worked and often unhappy team members.

Executive Management

Executives play a key role in this issue. Some organizations have not adequately defined their goals and strategies. If top management is not clear on project priorities, then it follows that the entire organization is also unclear about which projects are the most important. Many organizations get so busy that they forget a key component of success is taking the time out to meet and discuss goals and strategies to reach those goals. Once these elements are outlined, many projects are eliminated for not matching up to those goals.

Project Managers

Many times, project managers are given so many projects that they cannot realistically achieve them on time and on budget. Some of the more experienced project managers may push back, telling management that all efforts cannot be achieved. However, many project managers do not, either in fear of losing their jobs, or not wanting to 'rock the boat.' The lack of vision and leadership at the top of the organization flows downward so that project managers are managing more projects than they should.

Team Members

The natural result of this lack of prioritization is that team members are often over worked. Eventually, some may leave the organization seeking a less hectic environment.

Solution #2 Rank Project Initiatives

It is the role of executive management to determine the organization's long term goals and the strategies for attaining those goals. Once these goals are clearly defined, then project initiatives may be weighed against these goals. So if a project initiative does not fit the long or short terms goals of an organization, it should not be embarked upon. Then, the remaining projects may be ranked in order of priority.

Some of the largest and most sophisticated corporations have risk assessment departments whose sole role is to evaluate all the possible opportunities of the organization and determine which initiatives have the most revenue potential. However, not all companies have risk assessment departments. In fact, mid-market players do not have these separate risk organizations. Therefore, it is even more important that executives step up to evaluate and rank project priorities. Then management must clearly communicate these priorities to project managers and team members. A simple numeric ordering system may be used.

Project managers should be consulted when weighing these initiatives, as project managers have insight into the risks involved with different projects. This is particularly important for mid market companies which do not have separate risk assessment managers. They must use the resources at hand. Project managers must then embark upon the projects with the highest priority levels.

At a minimum, the project priorities must be communicated in status meetings and reiterated frequently. If a project management solution is utilized, then the project priority should also be designated in that solution as a visible reminder all team members.

Challenge #3 - No Visibility into Resource Workload

Following the lack of project prioritization are usually overloaded resources. It is a circular problem as well. That is, because executive management has no visibility into all of the projects and tasks the team is performing, they are often laboring under the belief that the organization can achieve more than it is capable of in terms of sheer workload.

Executive Management

Executive managers often delegate the assignment or allocation of resources to resource managers and project managers. If project priorities are not clearly established, then it is highly likely that the organization will embark upon too many projects at one time. The result is that the average team member will have more work than time in the work day to complete that work.

Project Managers

Project managers often state that executive management has no idea how much work their resources actually have assigned to them. Unless the project managers are willing to stand up to executive management, or have a way to show that their resources are overloaded. They are in trouble.

Team Members

The average team member is the most impacted by the lack of visibility into the workload, as he or she is asked to work extended hours in order to attempt to fulfill the many projects, tasks, and objectives. However, the result is an over worked, burned out employee that may ultimately look for work elsewhere.

Solution #3 Create a Resource Management Grid

Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI) holds that if an employee works an eight hour work day, then the resource should not be assigned more than six hours of work. This allows the employee two hours for the administrative aspects of his or her position. So, the first part of the solution has to be executive management understanding this concept and committing to invoke a corporate culture of planning and managing resources effectively. If the organization is simply committed to 'working on whatever is on fire,' then nothing will change.

There are many ways to uncover what resources are working on and when. The simplest tool is to use a white board with a daily grid displaying the task being performed and the team member that is working on that task. For some fast paced environments, this solution may work well. Of course, there has to be a point person to manage the white board.

Many project teams use Excel spreadsheets to outline the tasks and the team members working on those tasks. Again, usually there is one point person, as Excel is not a collaborative solution and should have an owner. This can be cumbersome for organizations with multiple projects.

More sophisticated teams benefit from using a centralized resource management and allocation software solution. These solutions allow projects, tasks, and resources to be input while in planning stage. Then the workload of each resource may be viewed in a graphical report, giving resource managers, project managers, and executives the ability to see the total workload. Once the total workload is assessed, choices may be made about which projects to delay, or which projects to assign additional resources to, and the like. Without insight into the actual workload of the entire team, chaos is likely to reign, rather than a thoughtful, planning culture.

Challenge #4 - Gaps in Communication

Once a project is in full swing, a common issue is communication. Most project teams use email to communicate about their projects and tasks. The biggest complaint here is that project communication resides in each individual's email box. So, if a new resource joins the project, there is no centralized view of the project history.

Executive Management

Executive managers usually rely on weekly or monthly status reports from project managers for project status. This leaves the information about the projects in the hands of the project manager. Some executives have complained that project managers hold the communication 'hostage.' As project sponsors, there is no reason why executives should not have access to the project dialogue.

Project Managers

The use of groups in email is very common. Project managers may email an entire group a communication about a project. The issue comes up with the responses when some team members forget to click on 'reply to all' and some team members do not receive the email or communication, yet the assumption is that all team members have been looped in.

Team Members

Team members complain about the volume of emails they receive and the burden of sorting through the emails, finding those that are most relevant to them. This practice wastes a lot of valuable time that they could be working on tasks, instead they are sifting through emails.

Solution #4 Provide a Centralized Location for Communication

At a bare minimum, communication should be posted in a centralized location. The lowest common denominator seems to be the organization's network. The purpose of centralizing the project communication is so that if new resources join the effort mid stream, they can get up to speed rapidly by reviewing the entire project history.

The better solutions are the web based collaborative and project systems that provide a centralized location for project and task communication. This software solves the issue by posting all relevant project information in one place.

For project teams with client facing projects, centralized communication helps to resolve questions and issues that arise on projects and tasks. The communication may be referred to for clarification of scope, goals, and other key decisions made during the project. For teams that must comply with FDA or other regulatory bodies, maintaining all of the project communication in one place is imperative. Project teams might as well get serious about providing a solution to this issue.


Solutions to these common issues are a combination of people, processes and tools. There is no 'magic button.' Good processes should be implemented that are customized for the business. If outside consultants need to be hired to help define these processes, then they should be brought on board. Software solutions that support these processes need to be utilized or invested in. Once invested in, the solutions need to be supported by top management.

Executive management must show leadership by spending the time it takes to plan, set goals and strategies, prior to embarking on projects. Project managers must be bold enough to contribute and give feedback when executives' expectations are unrealistic. Team members must get on board once projects have begun and task assignments have been communicated.

*PMI is a registered trademark of Project Management Institute, Inc.

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