Why Projects Fail [And What To Do About It]

Why Projects Fail [And What To Do About It]
Anyone who’s worked on a project or programme understands the complexities involved. Work on any project for long enough and you’ll be more than familiar with challenges that PMs and their stakeholders face. But why do these challenges sometimes derail a project?

Our team of quality assurance specialists work with New Zealand organisations every day to help deliver projects successfully. Part of this work is guiding our clients through the pitfalls of projects – some of which can be tricky to catch early without deliberate assurance in place. In this article we’ll offer you some starters for ten (we could write books on each of these!); read on to learn some of the reasons a project or programme could fail. And if you’re currently working on a project and have some concerns about its health, why not head over to our free 3 Minute Project Health Check to get an idea of where you’re at – our team will then produce a free optimisation report for you and email this through.

Unclear goals and objectives

As with anything in life, directionless activity rarely generates a good result. Setting objectives in a project is absolutely critical – without them, it’s fair to ask “what’s the point of the project then?”. A programme or project of work should be created specifically to make a tangible impact on the organisation. It needs a beginning, middle and end to really work. We ensure that our clients understand what success really looks like, which provides a huge amount of guidance around what needs to come together to make the project work. In short, start with the outcome and work backwards from there.

However, most projects do have goals captured – they simply aren’t shared by all stakeholders. Misaligned objectives of a programme are often the death knell if left unresolved. We see this as a particularly serious sign of failure when different goals are set by stakeholders of equal seniority. This is because the direction passed down to the team can be conflicting – with the misalignment materialising as arguments between teams or individuals who through no fault of their own have differing objectives.

Therefore, it can’t be understated how vital steering committee alignment is. Once everyone at this level is on the same page, objectives need to flow into all of the team working on that project or programme, often through the conduit of a project manager (PM), but ideally cemented by regular, effective team-wide communication.

If a new or changed objective is established, the whole team needs to understand the goal if they are to get there.

A Lack Of Planning

Mapping out the intended path of a project before embarking on it is essential for success. While external factors may alter these plans along the way, without an initial detailed roadmap in place, projects can quickly chew through budget and time.

Planning isn’t just a matter of outlining sprints and milestones. Good planning includes understanding resource needs, stakeholder engagement, requirements, procurement, vendor relationships, internal comms and a host of other elements that build a foundation for a successful project. When we see a project that’s blown its budget, often this overspend could have been reduced with a more robust plan from the start.

Things change – we’ve all gone through projects that started as one thing and ended another. This isn’t always a negative – through the journey of a project additional business requirements or opportunities can emerge which requires tweaking of the project’s outcomes. In this instance, the project’s planning functions are even more critical. Stakeholders and teams need to be taken along for the ride, including when that ride takes a sharp corner. Communicating and circulating a change of plan requires careful attention to get right. When a project’s purpose changes due to direction at the top but is not adequately reframed to the rest of the team, the project can become unstuck.

Good planning needs:

  • Clear timelines
  • Goals
  • Lining up the right people
  • Budget estimates
  • Requirements (technical and otherwise)
  • Methodologies and tools
  • Risk assessment (more on this later)

Scoping issues

Scoping a project – it can make even the most seasoned programme manager take a deep breath. Conversations about what is and isn’t in scope for a project need to happen at the start, and these parameters need to be crystal clear to everyone involved. We often help out clients who have struggled with the dreaded ‘scope creep’, which is common when a project is allowed to go off course at the whim of a personal agenda or, more likely, a lack of well-defined project scope.

When people in a project team don’t have a transparent view of in vs out of scope, it’s virtually guaranteed that there will be some activity, budget spend or decisions made that are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Without a clear scope, a team or individual might spend a week working on something delegated that does not contribute to the project’s success. In large programmes, this can happen without any visibility by the steering committee until budget and timelines blow out. Then questions start!

Part of the reason why our clients get assurance is to help reduce the occurrences of scope creep. No one person or unit should be above a project scope, as failure to stick within the agreed scope boundaries can mean the failure of a project to deliver its desired goal.

Often projects can be poorly scoped, even with the best of intentions. Blind spots are common in a project – things like technical capability, resource availability and user needs can all surface long after a project’s kicked off. If these hidden surprises fundamentally change the desired project results, an organisation may need to make a hard and expensive decision. Assurance will help those responsible for scoping to uncover critical considerations at the earliest stage possible. A clear, detailed and well-understood scope is one of the signatures of a project coming in under budget, ahead of time.

Misallocated Resourcing

While a project may kick off with certain people and teams, different stages and milestones will often require different resources. Through the project life it can become unclear as to where these transitions take place, and on what part of the project a team or individual should be working. If a project or programme runs years in duration (which is common in New Zealand large enterprise and public sector) it’s easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal, particularly for teams whose contribution focuses on one stage only.

If a project’s milestones and plan are not rolling up into a steering committee and senior project role, teams and budget can quickly become misallocated. Ongoing reporting and review of the project’s activity help to understand which part of the project needs attention to meet the next milestone.

We’ve already talked about scope and goal changes during a project – it’s in these moments where a project’s resource can become misallocated and misaligned to the purpose. Overspending and underspending in the wrong areas can equally hamper the health of your project.

Cost Control

Financial management over a programme or project is both an ongoing and tiered function. While a senior leadership team ultimately holds the duty for the business’ success, a project steering committee will take an active role in monitoring the budget. Underneath the steering committee, project and programme management leaders will make decisions around people, solution, tools and vendors that enables a project to live within its means.

Cost controls don’t start and stop with people – a project’s budget should be monitored through tools and measurement against progress that offers stakeholders the best view of where things are at. When a project’s budget tools are immature or incomplete, or even just inefficient, it is incredibly exposed to poor decision making based on bad data.

A project going over budget is almost so common that it’s become part of corporate small talk. We don’t think that’s necessary with proper assurance and project best practices in place. It’s why we have the belief that Every Project Deserves To Succeed.

Poor Project Governance

We’ve been talking a lot about the common features and functions of a project that if mishandled can cause failure. Project governance concerns the structure and frameworks in place that allow the project to run properly. At its core, governance is about having accountabilities within a project. It’s simple nature that a job without an owner probably won’t get done properly. So effective governance – or project ownership – is critical to project success.

A project’s governance structure is typically best to sit independently from the organisation’s standard governance, as conflating the two runs the risk of decisions being made slowly or not at all, or the project itself being deprioritised. Ideally a project has a representative at the senior leader level, but its own steering committee will make the majority of the direction decisions. Imagine a large organisation with multiple programmes and projects – there’s just no way even the most fantastic superstar SLT could be accountable for all of these.

Governance is so important to a project progressing swiftly as it outlines whose opinion is required for what part. No governance, and your project might receive 20 lots of feedback about one function, all with conflicting viewpoints, and no easy way to cut through them all to what’s really important. Understandably, that doesn’t make for an especially dynamic project. Engaged governance is an effective way of reminding certain stakeholders where and how their involvement will be valuable and actioned upon, and when it simply might be slowing the flow down. Having good governance removes many heated debates from a project – and for that alone it’s worth setting out!

Projects fail with poor governance because when hard decisions need to be made, there’s no accountability to work off. It can mean decision making becomes endless debate, with the loudest voice sometimes winning out. It’s why many businesses that expand from a startup size go through so many growing pains. There’s simply too many people to have all decisions made by referendum.

Communication breakdown

Projects don’t happen without people and relationships. Sure, a solid scope, budget and plan are foundational, but once things get going, the biggest part of running a project day to day is the people. Communication helps to get tasks done faster, surfaces issues up the line more quickly and builds trust between people which is valuable when projects face adversity or significant challenges.

The whole project structure,from the chair of the steering committee to a front end developer, needs to be aware of where the project is at and any relevant information. The medium through which to share comms should be a mix of email, phone calls, video calls and of course in person. Project teams can become unstuck when the majority of comms focuses only on one of these to the exclusion of others, or when there is little interaction with others who need to know what the project’s up to.

Communication is even more important when something changes or an issue arises that affects the health of the project. Simply springing wholesale change onto business units can make the ensuing employee engagement and performance suffer. Planning communication between different roles of the project at the start and being deliberate around maintaining this practice strengthens a project, making its people more resilient when things don’t go quite as planned. 

No risk visibility or mitigation

Understanding the risks that face a project and the wider business is one of the most important parts of a robust project. Some successful projects we’ve seen manage the project almost entirely from the risk register.

A steering committee will look to a risk register as one of their guiding artefacts for decision making, along with budget, timeline and scope. Spending enough time at the start of a project to surface risks means less stop-start during the project as these risks are encountered and dealt with. It also means that risks can be discussed within the planning phase with mitigation in place before any budget is spent.

Some risks will be unable to be addressed as such, but having visibility of them certainly helps drive decision making such as the best solution, platform, vendors and realistic goal setting.
A project without risk management is greatly exposed to failure. A surprise takes much longer to resolve than a challenge already documented and discussed earlier as a potential risk.

Assurance from an external provider is missing

Our team has a deep project and programme management background. We know the ins and outs of what project teams go through and how tough it is to deliver a successful project. Assurance is often mischaracterised as some sort of ‘audit’. In reality, assurance is about providing support and confidence for everyone in a project team that things are heading in the right direction. A project team that brings assurance expertise in from the start will progress through the journey with a peace of mind that “right for them”practices are in place and pitfalls are avoided. A team like IQANZ brings that valuable outside perspective to a project, offering the steering committee and day to day operational team confidence in the work they’re doing. 

There’s a reason so many organisations include assurance as an essential part of the project budget – neglecting this layer can cost a business significantly when missteps are made. We believe that it’s not just the large programmes within enterprise and government agencies that should reap the benefits of independent quality assurance. We want to help growing SMEs as well – the stakes can be even higher when the failure of a project could drastically alter the health of that business entirely.  Every project and programme deserves to succeed.


Is your project on track?

The first step towards getting a sense of your project’s likelihood of success is to get a free 3 Minute Project Health Check with IQANZ. We’ll provide you with an indicative % result, from which you can request a free optimisation report. We’ll then be able to assist you with getting your project back on track.

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