The deal with Project Failure

Project failure iconLet’s take a moment to zoom in on a dark part of Project Management. A part where most PM’s will get nightmares or quickly look away. I’m talking about Project Failure.

To look closely at the subject I give my own opinion but I also gathered information from other great blogs, video’s and books to give you a nice overview on Project Failure.

Defining Project Failure

To start off with the biggest question of them all, what exactly can be defined as a Project Failure?

In order to answer the question we might need to set the stage for success as well. In my opinion a project can be described a success when it delivers the desired result, within budget and on time. This takes into account 3 items:

  • Desired result
  • Within budget
  • On time

PMI and IPMA, both respected and well known have multiple articles about Project Success. And I would like to share one for each that also include hints about why projects fail:

IPMA puts “Project Management Success” and “Project Success” next to each other in this article titled “Delivering Projects Successfully“.

PMI is “Revisiting the definition of project success” in this somewhat lengthy and dated article. It also gives some clues on Project Failure, more on that later. There is also more to be found on Project Success in their “Definitions and measuring techniques” article.

The international Project Leadership Academy has a nice article with the title “What is Project Success?“. In it they take two additional elements into account “Quality” and “creates significant net value for the company”. The article also includes a nice visual that I like to call “The pyramid of success”.

The visual states that there can be “Project success” and “Product Success” and these things are not the same.

That would mean that the project could be a success (Scope delivered, within budget, on time) but the product failed (because it was no longer needed).

I rather like to take the approach by Daniel Zitter and Hamutal Weisz in their book (and training course) Being a project manager. In it they state that a project cannot be described a success when the product that is delivered is a failure. Even if the product that failed was within the agreed and delivered scope. I did a review on the book and training course that you can find here.

I believe that all 4 sources have great input on Project Failure. And the truth is somewhere in the middle probably. But then again, failing can be something very personal as well right?

How to respond to Project failure

What should we do with failure? Should we try to hide it as long as possible? Hoping that the project will in the end produce some form of success? Should we kill the project as soon as failure is obvious? And what should we do afterwards?

Hiding failure will be increasingly difficult in the current (power) BI driven organizations. And I believe it’s not the best thing to do.

Just think about the situation where you hide risks and issues until they are impossible to conceal. Someone might come up to you stating: “if only we knew about this earlier we could have fixed it easily by doing X,Y,Z”.

OK, so don’t hide but share as much as possible in order for you to utilize the collective power of your team/organization. That will lower the chance it will fail. But then, what to do if failure is certain?

Fail fast and communicate

Entrepreneurs have a slogan “fail fast”. Meaning that it’s OK to fail, as long as you learn from it. So when a project failed, let’s hope you didn’t spend months and months dragging a dead horse. And let’s hope you did a good Lessons Learned session with the team.

I’m confident that if projects are killed the moment failure is obvious, more successful projects would finish in a company. Just think about it:

  • More resources are available to work on successful projects.
  • More budget can be allocated.
  • The organization is more knowledgeable about managing projects.

And maybe the project failed but there is hope for a new version of the project with a new scope, budget and team.

Who should be in charge off “failing a project”? Is that the project manager? I don’t belief that’s a fair choice because the PM might be attached to the project to much. Maybe a PMO can be a capable department / team to decide on this. They have a complete overview of all projects and know if a project is failing or not and can decide to move forward (more budget/resources) or not.

Internal vs External projects

Failing internal projects might be a completely different thing from failing external projects. An internal stakeholder might be more lenient with failure than an external client.

But then again, if you communicate failure fast and describe why it’s going to fail, the client might be able to think of new insights that will ward of actual failure. Or it might strengthen the bond with your client because of honesty. They might be glad to know they won’t spend X amount of budget on a failing project. And they might consider you for a new project because of this.

Final notes

I’m very interested in your opinion in regards to Project Failure, if you have a resource to share. Or a statement you want to make about the subject, please let me know in the comments.

If you are interesting in more reading, you might be interested in these two books I reviewed in regards to project failure/success:

As always, thanks for reading another article on TPC! Hope you will join me on the next one as well. Maybe you would like to know about something specific? If so, please let me know in the comments.

Kind regards,

Erik van Hurck