09 Oct Stop Asking What You Need to Have a Successful Project!
I am tired of people asking me, “What do we need to deliver a project successfully?” or “What are the critical success factors of a project?”
These questions have been asked and answered countless times; we all know why projects fail, right?
Even when I teach people who are not project management experts or even executives, they also know why projects fail!
Yet, we’re still seeing a staggering 70% of projects failing, according to a McKinsey study. This figure was not too different from the one from the first global survey on project management maturiy that I led in 2003 while working for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Enough is enough. It’s time for a new approach. We should be focusing on what’s holding us back from getting the fundamentals right. If these barriers can’t be removed, maybe it’s smarter to stop the project before it even starts.
The Project Economy and the Need for Change: A Strategic Imperative
We find ourselves in the age of the Project Economy, a transformative era where projects are no longer peripheral activities but core functions driving strategic goals and organizational value. This change reflects a broader societal move toward project-based work, freelance culture, and the gig economy.
However, this isn’t just about improving traditional metrics like time-to-market or budget adherence. In the Project Economy, success is also measured by the project’s alignment with strategic goals, its adaptability to market changes, and its ability to deliver sustainable value.
One such innovation leading this change is the Project Canvas. Unlike traditional project management tools that focus on linear processes and task completion, the Project Canvas takes a holistic approach. It integrates multiple project dimensions—scope, timelines, resources, risks—into a single, dynamic framework. This shift in focus from task completion to value creation is a hallmark of modern project management.
My Views on Why Projects Fail: Unpacking the Complexity in Three Dimensions
It’s tempting to look for a single, overarching reason when projects go wrong. However, the reality is far more complex, and the failures often stem from a confluence of factors that I categorize into three main dimensions: Project Management, Senior Leadership, and Organizational Structure and Culture.
By dissecting the main reasons for failure in these angles, we gain a more nuanced understanding that allows for targeted interventions and, ultimately, more successful projects.
#1 Dimension: Failures Related to Poor Project Management
Some of the classic reasons are:
🧑🔧 Launching the Project Too Early
Rushing into a project without adequate preparation or understanding can lead to disastrous outcomes. Initiating a project too soon can result in scope creep, budget overruns, and missed deadlines.
🎯 Lack of Purpose and Unclear Objectives
Lack of purpose leads to the absence of engagement from the team and insufficient buy-in from the organization. Ambiguity in project objectives often leads to misalignment with business goals and wasted resources.
🔄 Lack of Adaptability
In today’s fast-paced world, the inability to pivot when necessary can be a death knell for projects, particularly those that are long-term or complex. A lack of flexibility and adaptability can make it difficult for projects to adapt to changes or unexpected challenges, leading to delays or failure.
📉 Poor Planning
Inadequate time allocation, unclear objectives, and poor tool selection are common planning errors. According to Geneca, 75% of business and IT executives anticipate project failure right from the start due to poor planning.
🎲 Lack Risk Management
Traditional risk management often misses less quantifiable risks like team morale or market volatility. A PMI study shows that 30% of project failures are due to poor risk management practices.
2# Dimension: Failures Related to Senior Leadership
🏢 Lack of Executive Support
When leaders are disengaged, it results in insufficient funding and a lack of alignment throughout the organization. One in three failed projects suffers from a lack of top management support, according to Harvard Business Review.
🎯 Poor Project Selection and Prioritization
Without a robust selection and prioritization framework, even well-executed projects may not align with organizational goals. Badly chosen or poorly prioritized projects set the stage for failure. A study by KPMG reveals that 70% of organizations have suffered at least one project failure in the prior 12 months due to poor project selection.
3# Dimension: Failures Related to Organizational Structure and Culture
🧑🔧 Inadequate Resources and Skills
It’s not just about numbers; it’s about having the right skills. Skill shortages can decimate project timelines. PM Solutions reports that inadequate resources contribute to 22% of project failures.
🌐 Lack of Organizational Agility
Rigid organizational structures can stifle innovation and responsiveness, making it difficult to adapt to project uncertainties. A report by Forrester highlights that organizations with low agility are 45% more likely to miss project deadlines.
🛠️ The Change We Need: Taking Decisive Action, Regardless of Boundaries
Understanding why projects fail across multiple dimensions—Project Management, Senior Leadership, and Organizational Structure and Culture—is only the first step. The real work begins when we decide to take action. Inaction or complacency is not an option. Whether the roadblocks are within your sphere of influence or beyond it, intervention is not just advisable; it’s imperative.
A Multi-Faceted Approach
- For Project Management Issues: Utilize modern project management tools, such as the Project Canvas, adopt hybrid methodologies, and focus on value and benefits.
- For Senior Leadership Challenges: Engage in proactive communication with top management to ensure alignment and support, and consider third-party audits for unbiased project assessments.
- For Organizational Barriers: Advocate for a more agile corporate culture and lobby for resource allocation where it’s most needed.
Be Courageous: The Wisdom to Halt
In this complex landscape, courage takes on a new meaning. It’s not just about pushing forward; sometimes, it’s about knowing when to stop.
If key components like proper planning, executive alignment, or adequate resources are missing, the courageous—and wisest—step may be to halt the project.
Far from being a failure, this action can prevent further resource drain and open the path for more viable projects.
The End Game: A Culture of Accountability and Wisdom
Taking such decisive actions contributes to a culture where accountability is valued over blame, and wisdom is prized over recklessness. By being both proactive and courageous, we not only improve the chances of individual project success but also foster an organizational culture that is resilient, agile, and effective.
Conclusion: The Urgency of Change
Failing to adapt to the new paradigm comes with a hefty price tag. Organizations clinging to outdated project management methodologies are increasingly finding themselves outpaced, outperformed, and out of sync with client and market demands.
As we move deeper into the Project Economy, the call for modernization isn’t just a trendy talking point—it’s a strategic imperative. From C-suite executives to project managers, the onus is on everyone to drive this change. The tools and methodologies exist; the only question is, are we ready to leverage them for transformative success?
Thank you for your ongoing support and inspiration!
Hasta la vista!
Article written by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez 24th September 2023
PwC, “Insights and Trends: Current Portfolio, Programme, and Project Management Practices”, PwC Report ↩PMI, “The High Cost of Low Performance”, PMI Report ↩
Geneca, “Doomed from the Start”, Geneca Report ↩
Project Management Institute, “Pulse of the Profession: Success Rates Rise”, PMI Report ↩
Harvard Business Review, “Why Your IT Project May Be Riskier Than You Think”, HBR Article ↩
KPMG, “Project Management Survey”, KPMG Report ↩
PM Solutions, “Strategies for Project Recovery”, PM Solutions Report ↩
Forrester, “Business Agility in the Age of Digital Transformation”, Forrester Report