3 Sources of Project Failure

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by Dave Wakeman

In conversations with project managers I hear a lot about the causes of project failure. Here are three big ones that come up over and over again—and how to avoid these common traps.

1. Overpromising and under-delivering.

This will set you up for long-term failure because your sponsors and stakeholders will start to lose confidence in you.

While there are numerous reasons why you might go with this approach—from the inability to be truthful due to political pressure or a desire to please everyone—it almost always fails. When you make promises for the sake of not having to say no or wanting to please, you are just prolonging the pain.

Here’s how to avoid overpromising: When there’s pressure to come up with unrealistic promises, ask what is pushing these demands or why this timeline is important. Knowing the answer might help you prioritize parts of the project that can achieve those goals or help you reallocate resources in a more productive manner.

2. Micromanaging.

When pressures mount, it can be easy to think that we can or should step in to deal with any and every problem. But offering up ideas, thoughts, directions and other forms of advice meant to move the project along can often slow things down.

Micromanaging can feel good, but it is often destructive because it undermines the larger need to build trust and confidence in our subject matter experts (SME). If we don’t, we will find ourselves fighting a never-ending battle. We’ll try to stay on top of more and more as SMEs push back by not doing their best work because they feel we don’t trust them to do their jobs.

3. Withholding important information.

In my view, one of two things drives secrecy in projects: fear or lack of trust. Both often occur because you don’t have a good working relationship with your team, stakeholders or sponsors.

But as a project manager, your job is to manage the flow of communications into and out of a project so that smarter and wiser decisions can be made.

Set some guidelines and expectations for your communications with teams, stakeholders and sponsors. Then, as the project advances, judge your relationship against those expectations.

If you find that your information needs and expectations aren’t being met, you have to have a conversation with your team or stakeholders. Be clear with team members and/or stakeholders about how the information deficit is impacting the project.

The best project managers push themselves and their team to address uncomfortable situations before things get any worse. How have you built a project environment infused with trust and openness? 

By the way, I write a weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. If you enjoyed this piece, you will really enjoy the weekly newsletter. Make sure you never miss it! Sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 


Posted by David Wakeman on: March 01, 2017 11:01 AM | Permalink

Comments (13)

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I fully agree with you David - Those are amongst the top reasons for projects failure and in my humble opinion, if I had to rate all three, I would say Micromanagement is No.1.

I wrote an article about Micromanagement which was published here under the title: Micromanagement - A Trip to Failure: https://www.projectmanagement.com/articles/314910/Micromanagement--A-Trip-to-Failure

Micromanagement can be detrimental to teams and projects.


Thank you David. Very important points indeed.

Hi David. I agree and wonder if all 3 excellent points boil down to a problem with communication?

Valid reasons indeed, thanks

Excellent ..

Thank you, David. I really appreciated your thoughts on this subject - especially the micromanagement. I know someone who totally destroyed a team because of micromanagement. Their intentions I think were good - but it backfired terribly for the PM. Your words on this helped me better understand why that happened.

Really simple way to put into perspective the way some PM's feel (reality for some). The variety of answers is ample and one can talk about it without finding the right answer. In some cases is better to talk with stakeholders with the truth, i.e. a development team workload reached its highest levels but stakeholders are really looking into having another in-house developed application. The development supervisor cannot commit to successfully deliver the new project (on top of unrealistic deadline). As PM one must balance work and project intake and address anything needed to do so. Evaluating the workload will help stakeholders to prioritize projects so in that way development and stakeholders feel comfortable collaborating. At the end the PM style and team culture must establish proper communication inside and out. Thank you for your sharing your thoughts.

Dave I completely agree with the points mentioned by Overpromising and under-delivering,
Micromanaging and Withholding important information.
All this are sure shot steps leading to failure. Communication and Collaborative approach in project management are much better approaches leading to project success.

PM should have the ability to say No and show the dirty picture if need arises. However, the world loves to see a rosy picture and the one who presents a rosy picture gets all the brownie points.

Good refresher. I try to understand what motivates team members. Then I try to set up the project environment to fulfill that need.

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I'd rather be a failure at something I love, than a success at something I hate.

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