20 September 2015 •

Why do projects fail? How can I avoid this?

A project itself is defined as ‘a planned set of interrelated tasks to be executed over a fixed period, and within certain cost and other limitations.’

For example, a project might include introducing a new IT system, moving your telesales team overseas, or even planning a team building event. Many larger companies employ a full-time project manager or have a project management office (PMO) to undertake such tasks, but in smaller companies they can be handed out to anybody deemed capable of achieving the desired result.

The success of a project, or otherwise, is usually judged by the following criteria:


  • Was it on time?
  • Was it within budget?
  • Were the results as expected?
  • Did the scope change?

Projects fail at an alarming rate. Whether this is due to technological implementations or workforce movements, studies frequently reveal that far too many fail to deliver. Aside from the obvious financial costs, failure can be disheartening for employees who have worked tirelessly to achieve a result.

One rather epic failure was the BBC’s much-publicised £100m IT project. The idea behind it was to project the BBC into the digital age and away from using digital tape. After almost five years the project was scrapped with almost no positive outcome. A Public Accounts Committee was set up to investigate and they deemed it ‘a complete failure’.

Being aware of project failure isn’t always as clear cut as you might imagine. If a project is completed, but ran over by three months it can be considered a failure. If it exceeded its budget that too would be considered a failure. However, if it ran over its initial budget restrictions, but overspend was agreed to by stakeholders, then it can still be deemed a success.

Failure can occur for a multitude of reasons, but there are some common ones that should be considered:

  • Poor planning: Jumping straight into a project without giving thought to its complexities is disastrous. Fail to prepare and you should prepare to fail! (This sounds like a quote from one of Lord Sugar’s Apprentices but we couldn’t think of anything better).
  • Incorrect identification of business requirements: If the project is not relevant to your business, then even if it is on time, within budget and of good quality it would still be a failure.
  • Lack of flexibility: Every company has a different combination of project requirements, business type and culture. No one project is the same, so people following a strict ‘Prince2’ process will struggle; it might be a good foundation, but you need to add a layer of customisation on top. (see http://www.elevate2.com/services/project-management/)
  • Poor leadership: The project manager needs to have the requisite skills to lead and manage.
  • Quality: If quality requirements aren’t discussed at the outset, different people may have different expectations of the required standards.
  • Poor, or lack of communication: This will lead to a need for project rescue.
  • Unreliable estimates of timescales and costs: Often estimates are just ‘guesstimates’ based on previous experience or just plucked out of thin air. If they turn out to be flawed the project can overrun and overspend massively.
  • The project manager goes on strike. (See our article on strikes http://www.elevate2.com/news/tube-strike/)
  • My dog ate the project.

A major issue with large scale projects is that the focus often wanders away from the ultimate goal and towards smaller projects, often involving many different people. It is easy for people to veer off track, unlike with highly technical engineering projects such as building an aeroplane where the ultimate goal is well understood. Even with the best-laid plans, unforeseen problems will occur that require decisions to be taken that ultimately can make knitting together the final pieces of the jigsaw quite difficult, or even impossible.
This is where a good project manager can steady the ship and ensure everyone remains on course.

It’s difficult to find a good project manager that has the right balance, but for us a few key attributes go a long way to project success:

  • Understanding – from both sides – of requirements to deliverables.
  • Listening – be assertive, but from a balanced, informed perspective.
  • Clarity – see the bigger picture and the project impacts.
  • Honesty – don’t sweep things under the carpet, they will always surface.
  • Management – balance of the project team involved.
  • Experience – been there, done that will help.
  • Flexibility – all projects constantly move and tweak.
  • Simplify – the best solutions are always the simplest.

Using all of these with common sense, you can minimise risk to any project. If you’re struggling to remember these attributes, just use our easy to remember acronym –



And if a project doesn’t quite go to plan don’t just pour cold coffee over the PM and lock them in the stationary cupboard. Speak to them first, and evaluate the results. Whatever the outcome, success or disaster, any project can help you run future ones better. Pause before you start the next one, learn the lessons and communicate the results.

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"Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time." - George Bernard Shaw

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