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Topics: Ethics, Leadership, Organizational Project Management
What Are the Characteristics of a Bad Project?

Bad projects abound. Statistics about the likelihood of a project going bad are, unfortunately, all too easy to come by. In PMI’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession Report we find that only 38% of the project outcomes met the original goals and business intent, met the original budget, and met the original schedule; other reputable sources have been reporting similarly dismal statistics for years.

With so many projects going bad, I suspect that many, if not most of us, have worked on, or even served as the project manager for, bad projects.

I want to hear about your experience with, and observations of, bad projects. I want to hear your stories and examples of bad projects. I want to hear what you think are the symptoms, the behaviors, and the characteristics associated with bad projects.
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Here are some characteristics of a bad project that I've experienced:
The PM doesn’t make the project schedule freely available to stakeholders, or even the project team. In my experience this is because the PM doesn’t want others to scrutinize the schedule and realize the PM doesn’t know what s/he is doing. I was part of a Business Analyst team on this project, and we all knew the project was doomed.

Stakeholders avoid making important, high-level decisions are avoided. I’ve worked on a few projects where high-level stakeholders were reluctant to make difficult decisions, though these were essential to executing the project. Instead, they instructed me to proceed anyway, though I pointed out the impossibility of doing so without these decisions.

I agree with Eric...and to add that bad projects can be expected or sensed at early stage. At a project initiating, many indicators can reveal the project future state. For example, unclear project feasibility, unreached consensus on project objectives and activities, lack of effective communication, missing key stakeholders are signs that will lead to a bad project. Also, and from experience, a bad project is a result of a project manager who accepts the project with unrealistic time, cost, and/or unqualified team members and try to challenge the reality. In many years in project management, I didn't hear or witness a bad project that was initiated and planned professionally.

What does bad mean? Bad is subjetive. Lot of ambiguity. That is the problem with this type of things and mainly with statistics.

The reasons for bad projects (it varies between PM and Project sponsor )
Sometimes the project manager accept projects with unreasonable triple constraints and sometimes the sponsor or power stakeholders force the PM to go with such unreasonable budget.
In my opinion PMO will help to decrease such bad projects.
Also Origination's culture/theory playing the best practice for guiding successful projects.

Hi Mike, Pulse 2017 also states that project performance got better the first time since 2011. So not all is bad, luckily. I am doing healthchecks for key projects of my client, this year 15. Two of them had a red traffic light and the reasons for this was inappropriate client support, e.g. sponsor not involved, Steering Committee not aligned to one strategy or even no time for Steering Committee.
Minor problems with budget, scope, schedule since some agile concepts are use. No problems with technology.
1 reply by Naomi Caietti
Apr 02, 2017 5:15 PM
Naomi Caietti
It's time for this shift to occur; now more eyes on the loss of revenue and strategic solutions.

IMHO, original goals for the projects might be obtained in theory but practically projects should deal with a great amount of future uncertainties based on individual project situations. As arrogant as we are, we might expect the project success rates should exceed 50% or more. Project management should focus at least on reducing probabilities of the failure.

We can see this in the other way that assuming all processes have been performed properly in theory or standards with high level of trust and motivation in project team can't guarantee the success of project but only reducing possibility for a failure (I am not quite sure whether it may be increasing the possibility of a success).

There are common symptoms for failed project as below:
1. Team morale deteriorated by any reasons including lack of leadership,
2. Poor planning including requirement gathering,
3. Many various claims by different suppliers or vendors,
4. Less engagement by key stakeholders including the members from the client
5. Slippage of schedule but no action practically measured,
6. Cost overruns but no action practically measured,
7. Poor risk management,
8. Increasing complaints for ineffective and /or inefficient communications,
9. Critical changes for project / product requirement including the contract clauses and,
10. Much more.

Project Governance ! Project Governance ! Project Governance !

Change requests are made mid flight and do not undergo formal review and approval by the Project Change Advisory Board or there is a Non existent Project Change Advisory Board.

Scope changes are permitted because the CAB is not made aware of them or the PM is trying to appease the customer.

Not all the stakeholders are identified or interviewed adequately and so there is some critical portion of the scope that is neglected during planning phase which leads to scope creep during execution phase.

As I expected, many of us are well qualified to list characteristics of bad projects. And, many of us can tell a project is going bad very early in the process. One of my favorite descriptions of a bad project comes from the very readable 2003 book by Ed Yourdon titled Death March.

"…a project that the participants feel is destined to fail, or that requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork. The general feel of the project reflects that of an actual death march because project members are forced to continue the project by their superiors against their better judgment. The knowledge of the doomed nature of the project weighs heavily on the psyche of its participants, as if they are helplessly watching themselves and their coworkers being forced to torture themselves and march toward death. Often, the death march will involve desperate attempts to right the course of the project by asking team members to work especially grueling hours or by attempting to "throw (enough) bodies at the problem", often causing burnout. Often, the discomfort is heightened by the knowledge that "it didn't have to be this way"; that is, that if the company wanted to achieve the goal of the project, it could have done so in a successful way."

I can think of a few things that would make me hesitate: incomplete business case, ill-defined scope statement, conflicting resources with lack of priorities, lack of dedicated project team, etc. This is where a good PMO or project steering committee can be a real benefit to the organization.

Just to add up:

A poor cost estimation is often a cause of bad performing projects. In other words, projects that require a capital expenditure which fall short in estimating the cost of the outsourced goods/services (i.e. RFQ to suppliers that once the project is initiated do not match the qualifying criteria thus forcing the selection of more expensive vendors).
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You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, "My God, you're right! I never would've thought of that!

- Dave Barry