It is always difficult to be precise about the causes of project failure for a number of reasons. Our human inclination is to avoid any blame being attached to us, no matter how much we might proclaim the benefits of a no-blame culture, when it comes to our own career on the line, we don't want to stand up and take full responsibility for the failure ourselves. So clients will blame the project manager, the stakeholders will blame the business analyst for inadequate requirements, the project manager might blame the client for a poorly articulated business case but none of this helps to define the real cause of the failure.
Questionnaires can be used to gather information on the causes of project failure, but the questions are usually too general and the answers given to the questions are biased depending on the role the individual played in the project. There are also, frequently, several different reasons which contributed to the project failure so such questionnaires make it difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for failure.
Add to this the fact that many projects are completely unique: with objectives, scope, technology etc that have not been experienced before and it is understandable that assessing the true reasons for project failure is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, if you take note of some of the reasons regularly cited for project breakdown they might help you to avoid disaster in your own projects.
The most commonly identified reasons are:
• Deadline missed
• Budget exceeded
• Poor communication
• Requirements not met
• Inadequate quality of final product/service
• Poor planning with respect to risk management, estimates and schedule
• Poor client - supplier relationship
• Final deliverable not acceptable to the client
• Lack or professional / technical skills within the team
• Failure to manage client expectations or unrealistic expectations
• Poorly defined or incomplete requirements
• Frequent changes to requirements and/or specification
• Weak business case
• New technology did not live up to expectations
• No support from senior management
• No involvement from end-users
• Limited Resources
• Lack of focus on the business needs
Some of these reasons are the result of an underlying failure. For example, a poor client-supplier relationship is usually the result of poor communication or communication that lacks detail and fails to manage client expectations.
And some of the reasons are not actually the reason for the failure but simply the outward manifestation of the project failure such as a deadline not being met. The reason the deadline was not met is actually the reason for the project failure and that could be any number of things such as failure to understand new technology, staffing issues, skills issues etc.
So if we accept that there are problems in genuinely determining why a project failed, we cannot fully understand the failure and so avoid making the same mistakes again. All the more reason why an experienced project manager is vital on major projects and why that person should have undertaken professional project management training. The experience will assist in avoiding problems that have occurred before and the training will provide the skills to deal with those problems that are unexpected and new to everyone.
So next time you are conducting, or involved in, a post-project review to analyse the causes of a project failure, try and look below the surface of the standard answers and resist the temptation to rush on to the next project and put the failure behind you. You just might learn a worthwhile lesson that could help you during your next project.