Why good project fail, at least sometimes…

There is a hard reality that everybody has to face. Sometimes our performances are less than stellar, and we are not always destined for success. You can’t always be brilliant! This truism very much applies to project management. Not every project will be successful. A project that is not entirely successful is “challenged”. This is the euphemism for over-budget, behind schedule, or any of several conditions that cause the diligent project manager to shudder. In my next blog, I will discuss all of those factors that help to make projects successful. Success is wrought from motivated project teams, good communications, luck, and a number of other critical factors. In this article, I will focus on those factors that are obstacles to project success and will identify for you the reasons that projects fail.

Stakeholder Involvement or Support (lack of)

Projects often involve multiple stakeholders. These include staff members, funders, senior management, other organizations, and so forth. A critical factor in delivering a project is that all of the key stakeholders support the project. If the key stakeholders do not support it, the project is unlikely to be a resounding success. There are many reasons that the stakeholders would not support the project, but the key reason is because they have not been engaged in the definition process. If someone has not been involved or represented when defining the project scope, they will not feel ownership over the goals or products of the project. They will likely reject the end product claiming that it does not meet their needs or has missed the target. You can probably think of several examples in which key stakeholders do not feel ownership in the project. A funder sometimes requests that an organization deliver a particular project or employ a particular methodology to deliver the project. The organization often feels that the project does not meet the needs of their constituents, and therefore do not give it the attention required to make the project a success. The lack of involvement by the organization in creating the project scope or goals has set the framework for the project failing.

Timelines (Compressed or Unrealistic)

I remember being asked to deliver a project for which the deadline was incredibly aggressive. I was assigned the project at the same time as the deadline came down from on high. After discussions with the project team, it became clear to everyone that we would be unable to meet the deadline given the current scope. I requested an extension to the deadline and was refused. I asked to reduce the scope, but was also refused. Although the team members worked as hard as they could, they were unable to achieve the deadline and the project was considered challenged. Unrealistic timelines are often the source of project failure. My project was doomed from the start because the initial deadline was unrealistic. Another common reason for a compressed scheduled is that work gets delayed, but the deadline is not also pushed back. Instead, activities at the end are done more quickly and with less care. This too can lead to project failure.

Adequately Define Requirements (Failure to do so)

If you recall way back in our discussions regarding project management, we said that every project is delivered for a reason. It is delivered to make something more efficient, improve a service to someone, or because it will meet another of our organization’s objectives. The first step, then, in delivering the project is defining the requirements of the product to be created. If the requirements are not well-defined, it is likely that the end product will not meet the need or it will be significantly over-budget and behind schedule because changes are required. Requirements development is similar to creating the blueprints for a house. Imagine building a house without a blueprint. How many rooms do you want? What color of tile do you want in the bathroom? How many floors do you need? If you fail to define the requirements adequately, you may end up with a garage that you never wanted and without a bathroom that you really need. Once the house is built, it is very expensive to put in a bathroom that was not there and to remove a garage that was. Had you taken the time to think about what you wanted to do and how you wanted to use it, the project would have better suited your needs.

Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

There is a French saying that is loosely translated as ‘the perfect being the enemy of the good’. The expression means that perfect is unachievable and that you should instead focus on what is possible – that which is good. A very experienced project manager once taught me how this applies to projects. Organizations find it difficult to deliver a project on time or on budget because they spend much time making it perfect or ensuring that it meets every need that the organization has. The better approach would be to deliver a good project that is credible and worthwhile – one that basically meets the needs. You can consider how to improve it and make it “perfect” in a future version. My friend’s company asked him to create a workshop for new employees. The workshop was to teach them about company policies such as vacation time and about their job responsibilities. When he delivered the workshop outline, one group of reviewers suggested that he focus more on company policies. One group suggested that he focus more on the staff’s job responsibilities. Each thought it would make the workshop perfect. The two groups disagreed so much on the approach that the workshop was eventually canceled. Instead of delivering a good, yet imperfect workshop, he ended up delivering nothing at all!


This article has identified a few of the key reasons for project failure. Keeping these in mind is not the magic potion to successful delivery, but it should help improve your track record. Remember, though, that not every project will be a resounding success so don’t get too discouraged with the odd one that is challenged.

Good luck and happy managing!