Why do project failures still happen?

It is not just IT projects that fail but they are the ones that get the media attention.

We know the causes of project success (see Pinto and Slevin’s work on Critical Success Factors) or the causes of IT project failure (see the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology report – know as POSTNote 200 July 2003). One really useful paper on the topic is The Causes of Project Failure by Jeffrey K. Pinto and Samuel J. Mantel, Jr. (IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Vol. 37, No. 4. November 1990)

Apart from the occasional failures that remind us that we are working at the edges of risk (an unavoidable part of  “unique undertakings”) in a growing organisation. Why do failures still happen more than 20 years after we worked out why things fail?

My feeling is that organisations confuse pace with “just do it” (lack of planning and management time) and there is a focus on “on time, on budget” forgetting that satisfying stakeholders (the right requirements and quality, not nice fluffy feelings) is the other part of the job.

Unfortunately the project manager is portrayed as a hero or a villain.  As this professional discipline is evolving and establishing itself, are we asking too much? Do we get poor project management as a result?

This focus on pace and adapting to change means governance is neglected. Waterfall approaches have been given a bad name (not adaptive enough) but the replacements (agile) do as badly if there isn’t a balance between change control and emerging requirements. Both need communication and stakeholder involvement (Pinto and Slevin had that right too.)

Above all, we need project managers to be reflective managers and give them the time to manage the projects. All to often we assume they can be technical leaders without the vital extra competencies in management. Just like any business, if the manager is too busy working in the business, he can’t work on the business and the risk management is neglected.

Ericsson (mobile phone maker) has been involved in a study that showed how close projects get to disaster when the project manager is expected to deal with high levels of change to their objectives.  Project Managers might want to read it:

More about Ericsson book by Mats Tyrstrup


About 3triangles
Helping organisations make change happen in 3 key areas: strategic change, deliver tactical impacts, efficient and effective processes. All blog content (c) 2009 - 2012 Carol Long and Three Triangles Performance Ltd

2 Responses to Why do project failures still happen?

  1. PM Hut says:

    For some statistics on project failure, take a look at this article on the CHAOS Report, it examines the trend over the last 15 years.

    • 3triangles says:

      The Chaos Report has been produced by the Standish Group and they have recently updated it with a 2010 edition. I know PM Hut has republished the 2009 report but as I don’t have the rights to republish, I’ve had to remove the direct link – you can find it on their site.

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