3 Ways Project Managers Can Avoid Catastrophic Project Failure

In the world of project management, one saying rules over all.

It perfectly captures a fundamental truth about the difficulty in getting a project done on time, under budget, and with a minimal amount of chaos.

It highlights a painful truth that you may have experienced first-hand. 

Projects fail in the beginning, not the end.

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In other words, when you cut corners up front, you pay a steep price for it later.

Yet, despite your best efforts, the pressure to start a project quickly and deliver never relents. 

What are you left with?

  1. A team that is busy, but not productive,
  2. a never-ending list of growing tasks, and
  3. a mess of a plan with an unknown completion date. 

In short, that pressure you feel to get things moving is killing your ability to finish a project successfully. 

So, let's do something to change that quickly. Let's get a handle on the three biggest reasons projects fail so that your next project (and even your current one) ends on-time, under budget, and with a happy, stress-free team. 

Project Management Failure #1: Neglecting to Identify Key Stakeholders

Neglecting to identify key stakeholders during the beginning stages of a project dooms your project to derailment. 

When I was first starting out as a project manager, a government-funded research project was going poorly. We had been working on tasks for a month with no meaningful progress and had already slipped the schedule once. 

I sat down with my team lead to "crack the whip," but he wasn't about to take the blame... he had come prepared with a drawing.

In the center of the page was his name, circled and written in all caps. Lines leading out like spokes on a bike tire connected his name to half a dozen other employees in the company. One was me, another our general manager, another our product manager, and so on.

He went on to say, "This is me, in the middle, and these are all the directions I'm being pulled. This project isn't going anywhere because when I start working on something, one of these 6 people sends me in a different direction."

At that moment, everything became clear.

I had failed to understand that those 6 people were stakeholders in the project. I had neglected to get their feedback during project planning. I had not received their buy-in on the key project deliverables (more on this later). And as such, they were trying to influence the project in any way they could, by re-directing my team lead whenever they passed by his desk. 

If you haven't asked the following questions, you may miss getting input from the right people... people who will discover your project is underway later and take action or give you information that causes your project to stall or backtrack.

  • Who has significant influence or authority on the project direction?
  • Who is directly working on the project? 
  • Who will indirectly be affected by the project?
  • Who is interested in your project succeeding? Who is interested in it failing?
  • Who will ultimately use the product of your project? 

It's never too late to identify key stakeholders to your project. It's also never too early. [Click to Tweet >]

As soon as you can, pull together a list of key influencers. Use the questions above to identify who they are and how they could affect your project for better or worse. 

Do this early enough in the project (during planning ideally), and you'll be well on your way to avoiding one of the top three things that derail projects and cause them to fail. 

Now on to the next two...

2. Lack of Clarity on Key Project Deliverables and Scope

We've all done it. 

Our project is only partially defined, but we move forward anyway. 

When the pressure is on, and deadlines loom, it's too easy to do. But in the beginning stages of a project, this spells death. 

If you or anyone on your team has a lack of clarity on the key project deliverables, you must address it before you can call your plan complete. 

Additionally, if you or anyone on your team has a lack of clarity on the scope of your project (what’s in vs. what’s out of the project), you’d better not move forward with execution.

Why not?

Because, if you don't, infighting over what is being delivered will result in significant delays and overruns. 

How exactly do you get this clarity? How do you ensure everyone is on the same page before moving out of the planning stage and into actual project work? We used a little trick picked up from the Scrum Project Management methodology:

  1. To ensure the team has a handle on scope, spend some time examining and documenting exactly what the team is going to focus on and produce within the project (as well as explicitly define what they are NOT going to do or produce).
  2. To ensure key deliverables are have the greatest chance of success within the project boundaries, line the team up against the wall and take a picture. 

A picture? Yes, let me explain…

In this picture, every team member must hold up between one and five fingers confirming their "belief" that the project can be successful given the plan you've put together. 

1 finger (not the middle one) means complete and utter disbelief that your project will succeed given the current plan. In fact, if you see this, someone on your team believes the project will absolutely, 100%, fail. 

2 fingers mean that team member believes there's a high probability that the project will fail. Sure, it might succeed, but it's 80% likely to go down in a flaming heap of you know what. 

3 fingers mean a belief that your project may or may not succeed given the current plan. This is an "on the fence" number to show... in case you're wondering, being "on the fence" about your project plan is not good. 

4 fingers mean a strong belief that the project will succeed. 80% likely if you want to put a number to it. 

5 fingers is the ultimate goal. It's a complete belief that the current plan will deliver the project results on time and under budget

If anyone... ANYONE is holding up 3 or fewer fingers, your planning phase isn't over. Take a break and sit back down to figure out why. 

Remember, every team member plays an important role in getting the project over the finish line. If even one person doesn't believe in the plan, there may be critical information lacking that hinders the schedule. Furthermore, during project execution, it's likely that other team members will have to jump in to help address problems that weren't dealt with in planning.

However, if you have a captured a picture where everyone is holding up 4 or 5 fingers, print the picture, frame it, and hang it on the wall. Your plan may change, but at this point, it's good enough to move forward into the next stage of your project. 

Just make sure, before you do, you've addressed the 3rd thing that causes projects to fail miserably...

3. Failure to Assess Assumptions and Constraints

Every project has constraints. That's a no-brainer. 

But are you conscious about what assumptions your team is making? 

Assumptions and constraints, if not brought to front of mind during project planning, can blow a schedule. 

To be conscious of assumptions and constraints is to spend time thinking of and listing them. Doing so will prevent your team from over-committing to a deadline they won't be able to make. 

As an example, in the middle of a software engineering project I ran years ago, our IT department ran a scheduled outage of the development servers to update operating systems and security software. 

The key word there is "scheduled outage," which we failed to account for this during project planning. 

Not only did we have an unplanned halt in development, when the systems came back up we ran into error after error. 

In the end, we had overcommitted to management that our project would be done by the end of September. That time ultimately slipped to the end of October which made for a stressed development team, unhappy management, and waiting customers.

How do you capture these assumptions and constraints? How do you avoid such surprises during project execution? 

Sit with your team, brainstorm, and ask the following questions:

  1. What people are critical to this project that I assume will be able to work on the project throughout the period of performance? Am I assuming these people will be available 100% of the time? What happens if they aren't?
  2. What systems do we rely on (and assume with work) for project execution? This could be something as simple as email, or something more specific to your company...
  3. What tools are we planning on using to complete our project? Are we assuming these tools will be available when we need them? Are we assuming these tools will work when we need them to? 
  4. What assumptions are we making about the team's availability? Are we assuming everyone will be available 100% of the time? Are we assuming nobody will get sick? Are we assuming nobody will need a vacation?
  5. Etc.
Don't move into project execution until your team agrees on the scope of the work, and the key project deliverables!

Don't move into project execution until your team agrees on the scope of the work, and the key project deliverables!

Projects Fail At the Beginning, Not the End... But Not Yours

Remember that project management saying? The one saying that rules over all? The one saying that captures the fundamental truth about the difficulty of getting a project done on time and under budget (and with minimal stress and chaos)? 

"Projects fail in the beginning, not in the end." [Click to Tweet >]

Avoid the 3 major sources of project failure during project planning, and this saying will be for everyone else... not you.

Make sure you identify key stakeholders. Make sure everyone is clear and in agreement on key project deliverables. And make sure you have listed as many constraints and assumptions as you can.

Ultimately, it comes down to being disciplined about properly initiating and chartering the project in its earliest phases.  This includes taking the time to get the right people involved, clarify scope, develop a realistic work breakdown structure and timeline, develop a high functioning team, and be comprehensive in identifying and assessing stakeholders, issues, and risks.  

The Project Management Institute sets forth many effective methods and processes for each of these steps. And you, as project manager, must remain committed to these efforts despite pressure to skip past them and get "straight to work."

About the Author

Michael Mehlberg


Michael Mehlberg helps small businesses owners achieve their goals and live their passion. His approach to technology, corporate strategy, product development, marketing, and sales is both practical and highly effective, and has helped multiple small businesses grow into the company their owners envisioned. Reach out by emailing him at mike@moderndavinci.net or learn more on our About page.