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Project management

Common causes of project failure and how to avoid them

Sharon Daugherty 8 min read
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When managing a project, every decision you make has one goal in mind – success. A successfully completed project means a product or service delivered on-time, within budget, and in sync with business goals and objectives. So you choose the best resources and tools, assign deliverables and tasks, set milestones and watch your budget like a hawk. With this level of attention, you’re almost guaranteed things will go perfectly, right?

WRONG. Even with the best intentions, project failure is possible.

Projects are often derailed by actions and decisions that can cause fallout across the team and the life cycle. Many times the damage is caused by decisions or working styles that a PM may not realize they’re guilty of. Here are six common pitfalls that project managers run into – consider these as your list of PM DON’TS:

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Scope Is Poorly Defined Or Not Defined At All

The project scope is where you define the work that will – and will not – be done. If the project scope does not properly describe the work, with the proper level of detail, you run two major risks: your project team will not have a clear understanding of the project or a direction to follow; and your clients will not know where the line is drawn in terms of what they can expect or request. This could lead to the team working outside of the parameters of the project – otherwise known as scope creep. These risks put the project in jeopardy because you will lose the efficiency of your team – resources will be misused, deadlines can be missed, and the budget strained.

To avoid this project failure risk, it is critical to draft a well-defined Scope of Work, that includes details like:

  • Phases, deliverables and tasks
  • High-level requirements, consumptions, dependencies and constraints
  • The project timeline with milestones and decision points
  • Any work the project team will NOT perform

These are the details that will get the project off to the right start and serve as a reference for the project team and stakeholders to make sure everything stays on track and in-scope.

Improperly Documented Processes

As a project moves through the life cycle, one area that is often neglected is documentation. Team members are busy executing their tasks and meeting deliverables, and may not take time to capture everything that is happening. This creates a huge risk of project failure, because there will be no pathway from one task to the next, no proof that requirements are being met and no tracking of what has been done and by whom. This creates disfunction that can throw the whole project off course.

Proper Resource Allocation Prevents Project Failure

Project managers must foster a culture where documentation is a regular practice, and include documentation at every phase of the lifecycle. Here are the types of documentation to include at each phase:

  • Initiation Phase – Feasibility Report, Project Charter, Business Cases
  • Planning Phase – Requirements Document, Design Documents, Resource Allocation
  • Execution Phase – Traceability Matrix, Issue Tracker, Communication Plan
  • Control Phase – Project Change Tracker, Test Plans & Results
  • Closure Phase – User Manual, Training Materials, Handover Plan, Closeout Report, Lessons Learned

Documenting your processes at this level will keep the team aligned. Everyone will understand what must be done and what has been done, and the project has a much better chance of staying on track or getting back on track if there are any hiccups.

Uninformed Resource Allocation

Your resources are the most important part of your project. Whether they are existing team members, new employees or contractors, you have to carefully select the people who have the knowledge and skills to execute their deliverables well. But PMs often make the mistake of choosing their team members based on things like existing relationships or their gut instinct. While there is something to be said for those things, without properly vetting each resource, some serious issues could slip through the cracks.

For example, you invite a colleague that you regularly have lunch with to join your project team, because you like their personality and think they could make a good fit. But once the project is in full swing, you find out that they lack any of the skills that you need for the role they’ve been assigned. Now you’re in the awkward position of having to remove them from the project, and you’ll need to find another person who can perform the assigned tasks – a recruitment effort that will cost the project time and money.

If you want to avoid risks like team member clashes and slow or poor performance, include the following in your team selection activities:

  • Document the tasks needed for the project and the necessary related skills
  • Make excellent communication skills and team oriented personalities a priority
  • Enlist the help of the HR team for a skills gap analysis or performance review summary on a team member you’re considering
  • Seek recommendations from other project leaders and department managers
  • Ask outside candidates to provide project histories; ask scenario-based interview questions

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Not Fostering A Strong Team

There is no team that succeeds when its members don’t work well together. On a project loaded with dependencies, there is almost no stand-alone task. Everyone on the team benefits from performing well together, communicating openly and most of all supporting each other. A team that doesn’t work cohesively can be loaded with conflict and miscommunication, which can cause break downs further along the lifecycle.

Let’s say there is miscommunication on the team about the stage of a product’s development. Because the team members do not work together to reach an agreed upon stage, they both work according to their own criteria. But the technical writer, who gets directives from both team members, documents outdated process steps, which causes further conflict and confusion, wasting both time and money.

As the project’s leader, you have to prevent these kind of issues from arising. Don’t wait for a problem; establish your team dynamic early and maintain it through activities like:

  • Daily standup meetings to check in with the team
  • Weekly project calls to talk through and resolve issues
  • Individual check-ins with team members to identify any sensitive issues
  • Team building activities like bowling, dinner, or a painting class

It’s unrealistic to think that team members will agree on everything, but when a team is strong, working through disagreements can be done in a mature, professional manner. Ultimately, a strong team wants individual success to ensure the entire team reaches the goal.

Not Participating In Strategic Planning

The strategic planning process is where priorities are set, stakeholders identified, and desired goals and results defined. These discussions happen among leadership, with project managers often excluded. This can limit your understanding of the organization’s goals, objectives, and priorities and impair your decision-making. Suppose you receive a request to change a product’s design, which will cost the project more money. If you don’t know whether the company’s priority is cost or innovation, you can’t make an informed decision. This could cause you to take a wrong turn that leads to project failure.

To avoid being placed in this position, you need to ask for inclusion at the strategic planning stage, during which you can ask questions like:

  • What are the top goals, objectives, and priorities of the organization?
  • How will we define success?
  • Who are our stakeholders?
  • What is the expected ROI of this effort?

These questions will help you develop a more focused project plan that will not only result in a successful project and also meet the larger goals of the organization.

Keeping Too Much To Yourself

As a project leader, you want the perception to be that your project is performing well, with no issues. However, if there are concerns or feedback coming from leadership or stakeholders, you owe it to your team to share that information. By not sharing, you prevent people from knowing if another team member or their own deliverable is in jeopardy, and they can’t do anything to avoid or resolve an issue. The resulting damage to the project can be avoided by open communication.

Common Causes for Project Failure

Avoid this issue by engaging in communication activities such as:

  • Daily or weekly status calls
  • Weekly project status emails for the project team
  • Weekly project status emails for the organization
  • Weekly update meetings with leadership and stakeholders

You may get input from your colleagues that can help you avoid the issues the project is facing, and you can make sure the project stays on track.

Small Changes Yield Big Success

If you take a close look at your approach to project management, you may find some of these issues. By taking some simple actions, you can change the course you’re on, prevent potential collateral damage, and give your project and team a much greater chance at success.

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