Why projects fail

Projects fail for the same reasons fad diets fail – it’s simple but not easy!

With depressing regularity, someone in a magazine or a social media site will ask “What are the top reasons why projects fail?” Unsurprisingly, such surveys come up with the same old answers time after time.

The first example I ever found was from an IPMA conference in 1972, so we’ve been identifying the same reasons for at least 40 years. Looking at the history of some projects in antiquity I suspect it was the same 2,000 years ago.

The reason projects fail is for the same reason fad diets fail – it’s simple but not easy. The principle of losing weight is simple – the problem is that is isn’t easy. Temptation is all around and true weight loss requires long term life style change – not a quick fix.

Like losing weight, the principles of project management are simple – it’s just not easy when we want results yesterday that are top quality and don’t want to pay much for it.

Conference zeroDownload a transcript of the Conference Zero presentation hereReasons, such as ‘poor sponsorship’ or ‘unrealistic expectations’ or ‘inadequate requirements management’ are not, in principle, difficult to get right if everyone (and I don’t just mean the project team) understand and agree what needs to be done. We just need to apply all those things they tell you about in the most basic of project management courses.

The problem is not that we don’t know how to manage projects effectively, it’s that the social environment often doesn’t allow us to do the right things. This is what often leads, for example, to an oft quoted reason for project failure - inadequate planning, because “if we did proper planning to estimate the real time and real cost we’d never get approval”.

Project management as a whole needs to take a more professional attitude and those outside of project management need to have greater respect for project teams who do the right things – even if it means they don’t hear what they wanted to.

Project management needs a change in social attitudes. What sort of people should we ask to manage change in organisations – project managers perhaps?


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