Is it a Project Failure or Success?

A common question in the industry as many Projects did fail while many others range from just a Go-Live to extremely successful.  Before writing this blog and instead of the above subject, I was tempted to ask “Why do Projects Succeed?” as I am more interested in Success than Failure.

Let us Start with the Fundamentals

When defining Project Management, the Project Management Institute (PMI) first defines a Project as “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”, in a way that it has “a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources”.  The PMI goes on to indicate that each project is unique with specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.

Project Management, then, is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.

When talking about Project Managers, the PMI defines Project Managers as “organized, passionate and goal-oriented“ who understand what projects have in common, and their strategic role in how organizations succeed, learn and change.

They have a broad and flexible toolkit of techniques, resolving complex, interdependent activities into tasks and sub-tasks that are documented, monitored and controlled. They adapt their approach to the context and constraints of each project, knowing that no “one size” can fit all the variety of projects. And they are always improving their own and their teams’ skills through lessons-learned reviews at project completion.

That SUMS it up with such two important trends to the PMI definition of Project Managers: “Traits / Skills” & “Toolkit of Techniques” as I personally believe that the Toolkit of Techniques, anyone can master but the TRAITS & SKILLS are fundamental to the Project Manager leading the Project.

Now, Let’s Look at Causes / Reasons / Blames / etc. of Failures

Many experts in the industry outline causes, issues, factors, challenges, and drivers for such failures.  Let’s examine what some of the industry experts have to say about this topic.  By reviewing the 101 causes for Projects’ failure, http://calleam.com/WTPF/?page_id=2338, but summarized at a high level as follows:

Goal and vision Leadership and governance Stakeholder engagement issues
Team issues Requirements Issues Estimation
Planning Risk management Architecture and design
Configuration and information management Quality Project tracking and management
Decision making problems

Project Insight focuses on 4 Challenges while providing 4 Solutions to Project failures:

  Challenge Solution
1 Lack of Visibility of all Projects Publish Projects to a Visible Location
2 Unclear Project Objectives Rank Project Initiatives
3 No Visibility into Resource Workload Create a Resource Management Grid
4 Gaps in Communication Provide a Centralized Location for Communication

Project Smart lists the most common reasons for failure as follows (my apologies for changing UK English to …):

Poorly managed Undefined objectives and goals Lack of management commitment
Lack of a solid project plan Lack of user input Lack of organizational support
Centralized proactive management initiatives to combat project risk Enterprise management of budget resources Provides universal templates and documentation
Poorly defined roles and responsibilities Inadequate or vague requirements Stakeholder conflict
Team weaknesses Unrealistic timeframes and tasks Competing priorities
Poor communication Insufficient resources (funding and personnel) Business politics
Overruns of schedule and cost Estimates for cost and schedule are erroneous Lack of prioritization and project portfolio management
Scope creep No change control process Meeting end user expectations
Ignoring project warning signs Inadequate testing processes Bad decisions

If we look at all above causes, do you think PMI certifies organizations or individuals on Project Management?  As I understand, PMI certifies individuals with the Project Management Professional designation.  Project Managers learn from reading related books, attending Project Management courses, browsing the web for related topics, etc. and NOW, you have the Toolkit of Techniques to accomplish what you need.  Project Managers are the LEADERS of their Projects and therefore the success or failure of a Project lies on their shoulder.  Success or Failure of a Project Manager is driven by if they:

  • Have the foundation; and
  • Manage extremely well what they cannot control.

A wise man once told me: “CONTROL what’s in YOUR Control, and work with / manage what is OUT of YOUR Control”, right Will?

Let’s examine some of those causes, factors, and drivers of a Project failure:

  • Issues: You MUST log, assign resolution, manage, and close the issues that are encountered in your Project.  It is your responsibility, as a Project Manager, to see them resolved.
  • Unclear Goals & Objectives: Starting a Project is not just about kick-off, resources, put the plan together, etc. but as part of your own Project initiation process, it is also a complete understanding and clarity of the Project’s goals & objectives coupled with a true understanding of the Stakeholders’ & Sponsors’ vision of what they want accomplished.  Not only goals and objectives should be clear but they should also be understood by everyone on the Project.
  • Shift in priorities: Regardless of what THEY TELL you about the priority of YOUR Project and with the start of a Project, you need to perform your own evaluation of the organization you’re working with as to whether they have old technology in other areas, potential change in leadership (sponsors), understand their heavy processes and related timeframes that might impact your Project, etc.  Perform risk assessment from the get go, likelihood of them occurring, their impact on your Project and the plan to mitigate them.  The Risk Plan should be completed early in your Project and not reacting to risks that might surface during the execution stage.
  • Gaps in Communication: Constant, clear, and structured (different levels of Stakeholders) communication is crucial to the success of your Project.  You should continuously and effectively communicate throughout the life cycle of your project regardless of the news.  When you receive incoming communication, respond ASAP even when the response involves unpleasant news, as “Bad News never get better with time”.

Now. Let’s restructure ALL the above challenges, causes, reasons, factors, drivers, and blames, whatever you would like to call them, in a different way – BTW, the appropriate header for each column is in the bottom of the table:

Goal and vision
Team issues
Configuration and information management
Decision making problems
Leadership and governance
Requirements Issues
Risk management
Stakeholder engagement issues
Architecture and design
Project tracking and management
Unclear Project Objectives
No Visibility into Resource Workload
Gaps in Communication
Poorly managed
Lack of a solid project plan
Centralized proactive management initiatives to combat project risk
Poorly defined roles and responsibilities
Team weaknesses
Poor communication
Overruns of schedule and cost
Scope creep
Ignoring project warning signs
Undefined objectives and goals
Lack of user input
Enterprise management of budget resources
Inadequate or vague requirements
Unrealistic timeframes and tasks
Insufficient resources (funding and personnel)
Estimates for cost and schedule are erroneous
No change control process
Inadequate testing processes
Weak Project plan
Incomplete Project plan
Unrealistic Project plan
Not enough testing
Training was inadequate
TOO many attendees per training session
We didn’t know this Project was coming so quick – I hate CHANGE
R&D is behind on delivery of roadmap items
R&D had a shift in roadmap priorities
Trainer was inefficient
Project Manager    

Whether you run into internal, external, or organizational issues, it is YOUR responsibility, as a Project Manager, to manage all those and succeed in your endeavor.  We can definitely blame other individuals, organizations’ behavior, external factors, lack of vision, goals and objective but let’s start first from within.  When you lead a Project, you MUST possess a complete 360View of all your Project’s requirements including organizations’ goals, objectives, target production move, available resources, etc. with the foresight needed to recognize warning signs and take corrective actions.

Issue Management is not just a matter of logging issues in your Issue Log and assigning them but it is a matter of managing them and bringing them to closure otherwise; they will have impact on your Project.  Don’t let issues become risks to your Project – Mitigate any risks through corrective actions of any issues.

As Tom Carlos, from Project Smart, indicates “Even with the best of intentions or solid plans, project can go awry if they are not managed properly.  All too often, mishaps can occur (and usually do).  This is when the project manager must recognize a warning sign and take action.  During the course of managing a project, the project manager must monitor activities (and distractions) from many sources and directions”.

By going back to the definition of a Project Manager by the PMI, I most admire the following: “Organized, Passionate and Goal-oriented” (Traits / Skills) as they set the foundation for a successful Project Leader.  For me, I am going to look at each of them:

  • Organized: Structured in your mind and behavior is important to your Project’s success as there are too many moving pieces in your Project that get you to the target Goal.  Not having a FULL Vision of What you need to accomplish, using Who and to meet Who‘s objectives, goals, and expectations in order to deliver When based on Which budget $, then you are IN TROUBLE.  Having the structured mind and process, to see your Project’s Goal and all the pieces (tasks, deliverables, milestones, resources, stakeholders, vendors, risks, tools & techniques) that will get you there, is crucial to your success.
  • Passionate: Project Management is NOT just another job, it is a passion that you enjoy doing, know how to do it, and excel at it.  Excellence, in everything you do, should be obvious in your Projects.
  • Goal-oriented: You MUST be Goal-oriented, and manage ALL the pieces of your project, in order to attain Your TARGET GOAL.


When I went the other way around in my research and asked “Why do Projects Succeed?”, I received multiple lists but I will use one for example where they gave 26 reasons to make a Project successful so they listed the MOST Critical Factors for Projects success:

  1. Clear realistic objectives
  2. Strong/detailed plan kept up to date
  3. Good communication/ feedback
  4. User/client involvement
  5. Skilled/suitably qualified/sufficient staff/team
  6. Effective change management
  7. Competent project manager
  8. Strong business case/sound basis for project
  9. Sufficient/well allocated resources
  10. Good leadership
  11. Proven/familiar technology
  12. Realistic schedule
  13. Risks addressed/ assessed/ managed
  14. Project sponsor/champion
  15. Effective monitoring/control
  16. Adequate budget
  17. Organizational adaptation/culture/ structure
  18. Good performance by suppliers/ contractors/ consultants
  19. Planned close down/review/ acceptance of possible failure
  20. Training provision
  21. Political stability
  22. Correct choice/ past experience of project management methodology/tools
  23. Environmental influences
  24. Learning from Past experience
  25. Appreciating Different viewpoints

When looking at other websites, I realized as well that NONE really gave the success factors an order of priority.  I personally believe that when you provide a list, your instinct will tell you to list the one that is MOST critical first.  Therefore and if I am listing Project success factors, I would definitely list a “Competent Project Manager” FIRST as it is the most important success factor in every Project.  When you are a competent Project Manager with the needed Traits / Skills along with the toolkit of techniques then you will be able to manage the remaining items and drive your Project towards success.

As a Project Manager, it is your full responsibility to succeed or fail.  You must have and enhance your Traits / Skills to be successful while learning and building the toolkit of techniques from every possible avenue (training, reading, researching, lessons learned, etc.)

Now, Let us Look at Project Success

Are you ready to bring your Project to Success?  What constitutes a successful Project?  Project success means that the Project has:

  • Been On-time & within budget
  • At the proper performance & quality levels
  • Met specification levels as documented and approved – Remember Project Manager, Sign-Offs are so crucial to you
  • Been accepted by the Customer / Stakeholders
  • Adoption / Buy-in from the User community
  • Mutually agreed to, yet manageable, scope changes
  • Without having impact on the day-to-day operation of the involved department(s)

The ultimate sign of a successful Project is that your Customer asks you to do more work for them and you know that you have a STRONG Reference.

Utilize your traits / skills & toolkit of techniques to make YOU & YOUR Project successful as it ALL starts and ends with YOU.