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  • October 29, 2014

Why Projects Fail

Andy Little
Technical Director

I'm going to divert a little from my technical orientation for blogging here and discuss something that's critical to any software implementation: project failure. 

To properly frame the discussion about why projects fail, we
first need to define a project. The Project Management Institute (“PMI”) defines
a project as “a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product,
service, or result.” (What is Project Management?). This is in contrast to
routine activities that use repetitive processes to generate a product or
service, such as manufacturing or customer service. PMI further stipulates that
a project is temporary because the beginning and end, scope and resources are
finite and defined to achieve a singular goal. Timeline, scope, and resources,
are the three factors that exert direct influence over the success of project.
Each must be in balance with the other two for the project to meet its goals –
if the scope becomes too large, the project will exceed available resources
(personnel or budget). Similarly, if the timeline becomes compressed, the scope
and resources will not be able to deliver on time. With the triangle of time,
resources, and scope in mind, we can say that a successful project is one that
is delivered within the timeframe, using the identified resources, and meets
the agreed-upon scope.

Having defined a project, we can then explore the concept of
project management. Again, PMI provides a broad definition: “Project
management, then, is the application of knowledge, skills, and techniques to
execute projects effectively and efficiently” (What Is Project Management?).
The collection of knowledge, skills, and techniques that have been refined over
time to produce reliable, repeatable results are called a methodology. A project management methodology is the primary tool
used by project managers to ensure the successful delivery of a project. There
are many different methodologies such as SCRUM, Agile, Waterfall, and SLDC to
name a few (Project Management Methodologies). The project manager uses the
methodology to guide the project to completion by controlling the three legs of
the project triangle.

With this framework in mind, we can explore the failure
points of the triangle. The scope leg of the triangle involves the definition,
acceptance, and management of the requirements of a project. A project that has
ill-defined requirements, which do not meet the needs of the users, or users
who are unable to achieve consensus on requirements, or pressure to execute
before requirements are defined is set on a path to failure (Why Projects
Fail). The presence of ill-defined requirements can also be a symptom of two
broader problems that can lead to project failure: management buy-in and
project communication. Project sponsors, executives, and leaders must be in
agreement on the high-level deliverables of a project. When these stakeholders
are not in alignment, the project scope will be unclear; the project will be in
jeopardy. Similarly, the users must also be aware of the goals of the project,
otherwise the requirements they devise may be at odds with parameters of the
project. These two factors can be managed with clear, concise communication at
all points.

With the scope leg of the triangle properly defined, the
time and resource legs can then be constructed. It is possible that the project
timeline may be set before the scope has been identified, in which case the project
will require additional resources to complete on time. When scope and resources
are not properly aligned the project may experience cost overruns or late
delivery, both of which constitute failure. One method to avoid misalignment is
to use proof-of-concept or pilot programs. These programs can help determine
viability of an approach to meeting scope requirements within time and resource
constraints, which will improve the chances of success.

When the three legs of the project management triangle have
been properly defined, agreed-upon, communicated, and have resources allocated,
the remaining step is to execute the project using the methods prescribed by
the chosen methodology. Herein also lie additional failure points for the
project, one of which is reactive management. If a project starts to exceed the
constraints of time, scope, or resources, the application of risk management
should be used to return the project to the boundaries of control. Proactive
risk management includes proper identification, analysis, and mitigation of
project risks before they occur. Failure to perform proactive risk management
will cause problems to be addressed in a reactive manner, which will result in
schedule slippage, and budget/resource overuse (Why Projects Fail).

In conclusion, we have identified multiple factors that can
negatively affect the outcome of a project:

  • Ill-defined requirements;
  • Management buy-in;
  • Communication;
  • Alignment of scope and resources; and
  • Ineffective risk management

I have also presented some common ways that these pitfalls
can be avoided to help guide a project to success. I hope you find this information useful and can avoid project failures in your own endeavors.


  • What is Project Management? (n.d.). Retrieved
    October 15, 2014, from
  • Project Management Methodologies. (n.d.).
    Retrieved October 15, 2014, from
  • Why Projects Fail: Avoiding the Classic
    Pitfalls. (2011, October). Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.oracle.com/us/solutions/018860.pdf

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