Have you ever had a big project fail, leaving you with your head in your hands? Unfortunately, it happens often to leaders. I’ve coached countless executives during and after a large corporate project failure. We conduct a postmortem report by walking through every step of the project trying to identify why it was not successful. What we find is that misperceptions, insecurities, and communication gaps often take place on project teams.  

Project management software TeamStage reports that 70% of all projects fail to deliver what was promised. To combat that failure rate, I’ve put together a checklist of ways I’ve seen projects fail so that you can use it as a proactive plan to ensure yours do not.  

But first, there is some work to be done at the front end of your project to safeguard its success.  

Start on Offense 

Start any large project off with a vision statement that defines the project. Ask yourself and your team: 

  • What does the completed project look like? 
  • What is your vision for how the project will work?  
  • What does success look like?  
  • Who is involved and what are their responsibilities throughout the project? 
  • What is the timeline for the project? 
  • Where will the project work be done (especially important to consider in today’s hybrid workplace)? 
  • How will team members collaborate?  
  • What is the budget for the project?  

Defining your project scope will create a shared vision that your team can use to measure their progress and success along the way.  

Metric Measurement 

How you will measure the project progress should also be clearly defined.  

The success of most projects is measured on two simple metrics: time and budget. And while these are certainly important considerations, they aren’t as important as whether the project realizes your business goals. The tricky part is that it’s easy to measure time and budget, but it’s not always so simple to measure business outcomes and whether your project is on the right track to meet them.  

A successful project starts in part by setting up what it looks like. It’s about meeting expectations. You expect your team to complete the project within a certain timeframe, adhering to a set budget while maintaining cordial and collaborative relationships along the way. As a leader, you are inspiring people to move this project forward.  

A Project Failure Close to Home 

Let me share an abbreviated version of a story I told in my bestselling book Leading Lightly that illustrates a project that went wrong – right here at JMA.  

I was scheduled to lead a high-profile workshop for over fifty senior executives at a Fortune 200 tech company. After months of preparation, I was ready for my company to shine. But about a week before the workshop, one of my trusted team members Naomi brought me some unwanted news. 

For months, Naomi had been overseeing a major upgrade to our proprietary MindMastery for Mental Fitness app. The first version had been created several years before on a shoe-string budget, and it lacked bells and whistles. But it worked well, and it served as a centerpiece of our workshop and coaching program. Version 2.0 was sophisticated, even sexy! It had much more functionality, a robust new backend platform to support more users, and a classy new branded design. We were aiming to launch the new version in time to use it at my workshop at the tech company.  

Naomi’s news was that the new version may not be ready in time because more rigorous testing was needed. Needless to say, I was not happy. She urged me on the day before the workshop to play it safe and use the older version of the app. I paused to consider. Naomi had always been an outstanding performer, but I had observed her many times to be risk averse. Whereas I am quite comfortable with risk.  

In my assessment, the win of presenting our state-of-the-art app at the workshop would be big, while any potential bugs would be minor. As a tech company, I figured the attendees would forgive a small bug here and there. I came to a decision and told Naomi to go live with version 2.0. 

The next day, the big moment arrived during the workshop. I told the audience how to download it, and I waited as fifty people all pulled out their company phones. Within five minutes, half of the people in the workshop – every one of them tech-savvy – could not access the app.  

We later learned that the company’s firewall had blocked access to the app, and we ended up reverting to the older version.  

So, what happened here? It’s not simply a matter of me or Naomi being right or wrong. A week later during our debrief, we concluded that each of us had been locked into our own particular perspectives. Neither of us had thought about the situation with curiosity or from the other one’s perspective.  

Naomi was locked into her perceptual lens about herself: I must deliver perfection.  

I was locked into my perceptual lens about myself: I must deliver sophistication.  

Our goals differed based on our perspectives, and we each had different areas of subject matter expertise. Naomi’s goal was to deliver a fully functioning revision with no major hiccups during the launch. My goal was to impress the client. Naomi used to lead tech projects and knew the importance of testing. I had strong, well-established business relationships with the client. We could have thought to involve the client as a participant in the launch testing. The firewall problem would have been found and addressed, leading to a smooth launch during the workshop.   

Related: Magnify your Leadership with Multiple Perspectives 

Reasons Why Projects Fail 

Here are 12 ways projects fail:  

  1. Just like JMA’s project, unclear goals can sabotage projects. Of course, both Naomi and I had similar goals of wanting a successful launch with a perfect app, but people hear words differently and as we already know, they can be stuck in their own perspective.  

Consider drawing a cartoon of a project kickoff meeting. If you drew little bubbles above each person’s head illustrating what they were thinking just like in a cartoon, you would likely have multiple interpretations about the goal of the project. Even at the front end of the work, there can be miscommunications or misunderstandings.  

2. Poor communication. This, of course, can contribute to misunderstanding. Typically, miscommunication happens because the requests being made are not clear or effective, adequate context is not shared, cascading deadlines are not provided, attribution of the work is confusing, role definition is missing, and there is a lack of understanding of what the expectations are for this project to be successful. Everyone involved in the project should review the six elements for an effective request which include:

  • A committed speaker — engaged and specific in their request 
  • A committed listener — attentive and clear in their understanding of the request 
  • Future action/conditions of satisfaction — specific parameters of request 
  • Time frame — expectation of completion/deadline 
  • Mood/tenor — tone 
  • Context — explanation of how the request fits into the big picture 

3. Changing scope. Scope creep refers to how a project’s requirements tend to increase over the lifespan of the project. What started out as delivering ‘x’ is now delivering ‘x’ and ‘y’ or a product that was initially designed with three key features must now have ten. Set expectations around the scope of the project and stick to them.   

4. Conflict in priorities/commitments that are not addressed at the front of the engagement. If two departments are working together on a project, everyone must be aligned. If a marketing department starts a new campaign but the sales team isn’t sold on its benefits, this could derail the project.  

5. Lack of effective leadership. There could be a variety of reasons why a project is not led effectively. It could be a lack of accessibility for the leader, or the leader is not responsive. Other leaders may not follow up and check in with the team. By not verifying that everyone is on track and the project is moving forward accordingly, leaders are most certainly inviting hiccups along the way.  

6. Lack of subject matter expertise/knowledge. Leaders need to be always curious. You may not have the subject matter expertise necessary in regard to your project, so find someone who does and include them on your team.  

7. Little or no planning. This seems crazy that it would happen today in corporate America, but I’ve seen coaching clients describe plenty of projects that are not planned out appropriately and just shoot from the hip.  

8. Lack of resources. There’s no arguing that teams are under-resourced today. There may be cuts due to economic factors, or the team could be taking on project after project which for them is akin to running marathon after marathon without rest.  

9. A lack of management support. It’s important that the right level of leadership supports the project, is excited about it and demonstrates that to team members. One way upper management can show support is helping remove obstacles – move barriers for your team and lend additional resources if necessary.  

10. Personnel changes. This is another situation that a lot of teams are dealing with today. You may have lost some key members to another company, or they are getting promoted and going to another team within your organization. There could also be attrition or retention issues at play which need to be addressed.  

11. Lack of teamwork and commitment. This happens when a team is a combination of individuals who are not aligned, are not working together, are not helping each other out, and are not resources for one another. They don’t feel like they are a team, so they aren’t acting as one.  

12. Political issues. This is usually due to a lack of alignment in the organization. There may be individuals who are stalling or not in agreement with the forward movement of a particular project due to their own political agenda within the organization. They are sabotaging the project’s success in some way.  

This list is overarching applicable for organizations both small and large. When I work with my executive coaching clients who have had failed projects, we use this list to debrief which of these reasons or combination of these reasons impacted the end result. We discuss how they could have proactively managed it more effectively and prepare them for the next time so that they can achieve optimal project performance.  

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