project failure

No matter how great your team is and how strategic your decisions are, some of your projects will fail. However, this doesn’t mean you should sweep them under the rug. Project managers and leaders can be on the lookout for the warning signs that foreshadow project failure.

There are different reasons for project failure. Can you identify any of these early warning signs? Use this list to pinpoint and address these little breakdowns—before they become blowouts.

But First, What Is Project Failure?

To be sure, project failure is a big part of “business as usual”, especially in the tech world. And failure isn’t always a bad thing—failing is a natural part of experimenting with innovative ideas. In fact, some leaders look at failure as the key to success at work.

There’s a big difference between healthy failure that contributes to a strategic evolution and the type of failure that drags down morale, budgets, and organizational goals.

However, the type of failure we talk about in this post is the type of failure that occurs when critical problems start to emerge in our projects, creeping under the radar and creating weaknesses that cause our teams to under-perform or cause our costs to overrun.

The ability to detect these early warning signs of project failure is one of the most important project management skills—and one of the most challenging areas to master.

Why Is It So Hard to Identify Early Warning Signs of Project Failures?

No one begins a project believing in its failure. We all want to believe in a project’s success, and we all think that we’re doing what it takes to be successful. If we’re all working towards success, why do projects fail? Why is so hard to identify and act upon the red flags that come up along the way?

The answer is that success is complex—and failure is complex. Increasingly, we’re working in highly complex project environments that have to account for distributed teams, multiple frameworks, overlapping project teams, and fast-paced schedules. With so many factors to keep in balance, it takes a skilled professional to be able to ask the right questions and dig into the root causes behind seemingly innocuous events in order to uncover hidden risks.

A complete discussion of the causes of project failure (especially when there is a high level of complexity) goes far beyond the scope of this post, but you can start to pick up on red flags by keeping an eye out for these common warning signs.

So, here are my top reasons for project failure.

#1: It Feels like There Aren’t Any Warning Signs.

the project is ok

Simply put, if something feels risk-free, then you haven’t done a proper analysis of your contingencies, dependencies, and risks.

Why?

Because there are always risks, in every project. There are always numerous ways in which something could go over time, or beyond budget. Clients take longer than expected to provide approvals, a new change resulted in needing double the time for QA, etc.

If you’re humming along believing that everything will likely go according to plan, that is your first warning sign that your risks are not in check. Your project could quickly unravel because you haven’t developed contingency plans that will allow you to accommodate changes and pivot strategically when you hit blockers.

What to do? Use tools for resource scheduling that can help you assign dependencies to tasks. These tools provide a framework for realistically thinking about risks and for calculating and communicating the impacts that different changes could have on your project outcomes.

#2: It’s Quiet—Too Quiet.

too quiet

We all know that good communication is a key ingredient in a project’s success. It follows naturally that poor communication is a precursor to failure.

Silence can be an indicator that all’s well, but silence can also be a sign of a more serious problem in your projects. For example, it can indicate that someone is avoiding having a difficult conversation about an assumption or mistake that they’ve made. It can indicate that team members are working in silos that prevent progress and important changes from being communicated clearly to other people who depend on their work.

What to do? If you are not using one already, start by finding a communication tool for your project teams. There so many solutions such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, HipChat and so on. This will provide a framework for posting updates on tasks, sharing files in a central place, posting team schedules, and more.

#3: Processes Are Constantly Getting Thrown Out the Window.

Your process can feel cumbersome and abstract, but your process is the essential current that guides your projects from start to finish. It’s all too tempting to throw due process out the window in favor of things like “cool new” methods, “cool new” tools, “cool new” ideas, etc.

What to do? Think about your processes. What are they? Are they well-defined, with clear steps for sharing documents, handing off work, and getting approvals? You don’t have to build these processes from scratch—you can use templates and automated functions in workflow management software (sometimes called business process management software) to give your project teams an easy way to follow processes, consistently.

#4: Everything Is Urgent.

project management is urgent

Does everything that comes up suddenly take precedence over everything else? This is an indicator of a big weakness when it comes to prioritization. If priorities aren’t properly set, the important things don’t get done. And if the important things don’t get done, it makes sense that failure is just around the corner.

There’s a difference between urgent and important tasks—between things that are time-sensitive and things that may not be as time-sensitive but are still critical to the success of a project. Learn to distinguish between urgent and important.

What to do? Sort your priorities. I like using a Kanban board for project management, which provides a simple, visual display of work in progress.

#5: You’re Driving without a Map.

It’s pretty hard to succeed if you’re not sure what success will look like when you get there.  Far too often, projects fail not because of a problem with the solution, the tools, the team, or the methods, but because the project itself isn’t well-defined in the first place. This leads to excessive scope creep as requirements fluctuate wildly, as well as confusion and inefficiency regarding the roles of stakeholders, clients, and different team members.

What to do? Make sure you’re taking advantage of all the conventions out there for defining and managing projects well. Do you have a robust, specific Statement of Work, as well as appropriate Requirements Documentation, timelines, process policies, etc?

There isn’t “one right way” to do it, but the important thing is that you keep learning, and finding the right training to fill in the holes.


This post was contributed by Ben Aston.
Ben is a digital project manager and founder of The Digital Project Manager, the largest online resource for digital project managers. He’s been in the industry for over 10 years at top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. He’s delivered everything from video virals to CMS, flash games, banner ads, eCRM and eCommerce sites across automotive, utility, FMCG, and consumer electronics brands.

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