You can put a dream team in place, have every resource imaginable and be at the top of your game — and your next project will likely still fall short.
Sorry for that reality check. But PwC researchers found that just 2.5% of companies complete 100% of their projects successfully. They studied almost 11,000 projects to come that conclusion, so it’s got to be a solid conclusion.
But there’s one way to safeguard yourself, team and project from failure: Know why projects fail. That way, you can set yourselves up to avoid the fall.
Next project size matters
Whether your project is small — say, scrub the old files — or big — perhaps overhauling the system and introduce AI — they’re often doomed from the get-go, according to Montclair State University researchers Te Wu and Ram Misra.
“Projects are notoriously finicky, and success rates fall precipitously as they become larger, longer and more complex,” they said when they published their research findings in the Harvard Business Review.
Here are the top five reasons projects fail — and tips to avoid them.
1. It’s the wrong project!
The top reason a project fails is that it should’ve never been started. Most of them:
- defy conventional business rationale
- achieve goals that few people want
- add little to no real value
- undershoot the benefits everyone wants, or
- are far too difficult to achieve.
Many times, the goal was not properly decided or the process didn’t meet the demands of the outcome.
Avoid it: The researchers said these are sometimes called “white elephants.” And the fix is to be the person who calls out the white elephant in the room and gets everyone to consider more if it’s truly what you need to pursue.
2. Institutional constraints
The researchers call them “unreasonable constraints,” but we’ll call them institutional constraints because they’re often systemic, not oppressive. The issue here is the project doesn’t get enough funding, people, time or any other necessary resources. Then the team is stretched thin and the effort can’t overcome the scarce resources.
Avoid it: This takes serious questions up front. For instance, how many people and hours will this take and do we have that available? If we budget X, do we have Y to cover excesses? Based on expected outcome and deadline, do we still have enough people, time and money? A no answer to any of those means the project should be reconsidered or forgotten.
Some projects are funded so well, they include too many people, ideas and moving parts. So they become too complex to manage and achieve. When several teams in many locations across different business units must work together to reach the goal, the goal usually eludes them. The biggest problem in complex projects is either too many decision-makers or not enough.
Avoid it: When projects start crossing into more than three departments, consider breaking them down into smaller projects for each unit. Then, once they accomplish their goals, move it up to the next level where one liason from each unit can work on the next steps.
4. Overbearing leadership
Sometimes managers get in the way of getting the job done. They’re given all the authority and don’t have the time or consistency to allow progress. Team members stall while waiting on approvals. Or the leader micromanages every detail and that takes too long, often exhausting everyone involved.
Avoid it: It can’t be said enough, great leaders do not micromanage. If you’re leading a project, you want to give team members all the information you have so they can do their work without having to gain approvals or asking for more information. Set work deadlines and require team members to report their progress regularly so you can monitor movement toward success but not hinder them.
5. Lackadaisical leadership
On the opposite side of the leadership coin is the lackadaisical leader who steps back and gives no oversight or encouragement. Some leaders just want to see the results, expecting everyone else will execute. They might even take credit for results but not the blame for failures. And projects managed by these kind of leaders are destined to fail.
Avoid it: Advice here is similar to the above. Agree on the goal and how it will be accomplished. Set deadlines and get daily or weekly progress reports so you can help when needed or give paise when its due.