Understanding project failure is the first step to putting project management right. Elizabeth Harrin FAPM explores why businesses and leaders are so slow to learn the past's most important lessons.

Every researcher, management guru and project manager have their own view on why projects fail. Project failure - and preventing it - has been the subject of countless academic studies, surveys and books over the years. So why are we still talking about it?

There are two reasons why project failure is still such a hot topic. First, while many business leaders may understand the causes of project failure at a theoretical level, they genuinely don’t understand what that means for their business. Second, the causes of project failure are changing as our economy and business context evolves.

Beyond academic reasons for failure

Projects fail for dozens of reasons. Business leaders and project managers may be able to recite the list of reasons in the box, but they also need to be able to do something about them. For example, knowing that poor strategic alignment is a major reason for project failure is not the same as redesigning the project kick-off process to ensure a good strategic fit from before the business case is even approved.

Poor project management practices might stand out as a reason for businesses with low project management maturity, but is it best addressed by sending team leaders on a PRINCE2 course? Perhaps a better step would be to review internal processes, gain executive support for doing things in a ‘project management-y’ way and build from there.

Projects fail because businesses fail to work in a way that leads to success. In other words, all the good practices we’ve known about for years somehow aren’t routinely in use, because other stuff gets in the way.

We need project management officers (PMOs) to lead on embedding good practices, acting on lessons learned (instead of simply capturing them) and calling out leaders who fail to create an environment where projects can flourish.

The evolving concept of failure

Businesses today face new challenges: the gig economy, tech that evolves faster than we can keep up, how to interface dozens of systems, innovation as standard, Brexit, and running effective flat and virtual teams. Just as with that economic context, our understanding of the potential that projects have to offer has moved on too.

Back in 1994, the original CHAOS report from the Standish Group defined a ‘challenged’ project based on hitting time, cost and specification targets.

While no one would argue that these are totally relevant today, they are no longer the measures that matter the most. You can be within schedule, budget and quality tolerances and still deliver something that nobody wants.

Benefits, outcomes and value should matter far more to project teams than the old constraints.

Success looks different for every project, and therefore so does failure. When leaders stop thinking about failure in an academic sense and start creating an environment where what it means to fail is understood per project, we’ll see teams empowered to be successful.

Why some projects succeed

Project success is simple. Projects succeed because they are the right projects and because they are done right. If you can find a way to get those two conditions in place, you’re on the path to a successful delivery.

However, there is a pre-requisite step before that which must be in place if you are to have any chance of turning in a project successfully.

What does ‘success’ mean?

Experienced project managers will have heard the phrase ‘the iron triangle’, which is shorthand for saying that time, cost and quality are the constraints that bind every project. Experienced project managers will also know that the concept of there being only three constraints that underpin success is actually nonsense today.

Success looks different on every project. On some, it might be hitting a particular deadline, such as a regulatory change like the introduction of GDPR. On others, it might be delivering the lowest risk solution, or something that has the most impact on customer satisfaction or saving 20 per cent of time spent on a process, or something else.

More likely, it’s a combination of factors. We need to rethink what it means to be successful beyond project management measures, and realise that, ultimately, it is the end-user or customer who decides whether the project is a success or not. Once you’ve worked out what success looks like for your project, you can then try to get there.

Doing the right projects

Successful projects are the ones that are the right projects for the business. You need to look for strategic alignment. There needs to be management support. The project should contribute to the overall organisational objectives somehow.

In other words, there needs to be a clear decision taken about why this is the project to be doing right now, with the resources you have and the budget available. Or is there something else you should be working on that would be a better choice? A project with a strong reason for being is starting off with all the hallmarks of being a success, because people want it to be a success and the business needs it to be a success.

Common causes of project failure

  • Lack of executive support
  • Poor strategic alignment
  • Poor risk management
  • Poor communication
  • Poor project management practices
  • Delays to decision making

Doing projects right

Alone, choosing the right projects isn’t enough. They also have to be executed effectively. You can have the best list of projects in the world, but if no one has the skills to coordinate the team and get work done, you’ll hit delays, overruns, communication problems and all the reasons projects struggle.

Too often, businesses think that ‘doing projects right’ means sending a member of the team on a course to learn how to be a project manager. They return to the office five days later, magically equipped to implement project management techniques to keep work on track and customers happy.

In reality, it takes experience, learning from your mistakes, and a supportive culture where project management isn’t simply an add-on but an embedded way of approaching work. Doing projects right takes experience and a supportive culture where project management isn’t simply an add-on but an embedded way of approaching work.

A successful project is never delivered by a single project manager, but by a team working in an organisational context where success is expected, supported and made possible, and where failure is identified early and embraced as a learning opportunity.

Strong project management practices and a willingness to support continuous professional development will help ensure that projects are done right.

When you know what success looks like, you have a clear steer that the project is an appropriate one for the business and you have the ability to manage the work effectively, you have the makings of a successful project. Good luck!

Elizabeth Harrin is an award-winning project management blogger and author of 'Project Manager: Careers in IT Project Management', available in the BCS Bookshop.