Project Management

Learning from Our Project Failures

In project management, unfortunately, failure is a way of life. You’ll never realize 100% success on your projects. In fact, you’ll likely never run a project that is 100% successful. While we like to talk about the project successes out there…and we often do talk about best practices, how to succeed and what ‘x’ number of steps might guarantee success (which can never really be true), the reality is that we must also talk about the failures and what we can learn from them so we turn today’s failures into tomorrow’s success stories.

What we need to do is learn as much as we can from history so that it doesn’t repeat itself. We need to make the bad project situations as we move forward and manage another project tomorrow, the next day and the next day. Right?

As I see it, there are two things we can do. Look at some of the reasons why projects frequently fail. And make sure we incorporate lessons learned into the project management process – something that many of us either can’t find the time to do at the end of the engagement or that we just plain tend to omit.

Let’s consider four key general reasons – from own observations – why many projects fail…

Lack of communication. I believe that communication is both the most important responsibility of the project manager and the biggest reason for project failures. It’s the most critical piece of the project management puzzle and it’s something that many of us struggle to do well. As a project manager, you must be ready to be the focal point of communication for your project and carry that task out well.

Incomplete or inaccurate requirements. This is definitely linked to project planning. Whether your project team is helping the customer with all of the requirements definition or if the customer has come to you with detailed requirements, they still need to be reviewed in great detail because missed requirements or poorly documented requirements end up costing the project budget infinitely more dollars down the road in re-work than it requires to just verify and drill down to more detailed requirements up front on the project. Do it right the first time and you’ll greatly lessen the risk of having a project that gets halted when funds run out or the customer is just too frustrated to move on.

Poor leadership. Weak project leadership – meaning a project manager who can’t run a project well – is another major contributor to project failures. The project manager must be a great communicator, a strong leader, an organized project professional, and have the dedication and stubbornness to make good decisions and stick to them. If too many of these characteristics are lacking, the project may flounder or completely fail.

Lack of project planning overall. If not enough time is spent up front in planning the project and getting a good schedule and the proper documents in place as well as mapping out the resource usage and the budget, then the project can get into trouble quickly. Plan well up front and you set a positive and productive course for your project for the rest of its life cycle. And remember, it will never be cheaper and you’ll never have more time to do the right project planning later on in the project. Do it up front or your project may be doomed before it is even started.

The always valuable, but often avoided lessons learned session

I know it’s very hard to face the problems when a project goes horribly wrong. Especially if you, as the project manager, were somewhat to blame. But the best way to ensure we don’t repeat the same failures is to make sure that we learn from them. So conducting a lessons learned session is definitely the right way to go. And yes, even conduct them on successful projects because there is always something we could have done better.


Failure happens. And it will continue to happen if we don’t learn from mistakes, oversights and customer missteps and mis-management. Project managers – what are your thoughts on lessons learned? How often do you actually perform lessons learned at the end of – or during – a project? And concerning my failure list above – what are your thoughts? Please share your own list and let’s discuss.

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