5 Key Downfalls that Can Wreck a Project

The potential for project failure looms over every project and has since the beginning of time.  Most surveys and reports have the project failure rate at greater than 50%....so you can see that true project success is often painfully difficult to obtain. So many variables go into each project, so many outside entities can affect the success or failure of any given project, and unknowns can enter the picture at any time – making risk planning…something that is often too overlooked – a very necessary piece to the early project planning puzzle. 

I’d like to discuss what I consider to be five key things that can greatly diminish any projects chances of success – and in all likelihood, any one of these can absolutely squash the project undertaking. Keen project management skills are required to prepare for, plan for, and react to each of these…and these are merely the tip of the iceberg of things that can kill a project.

Poor or incomplete requirements.  Since I consider requirements to be the lifeblood of the project – and I’m sure I’m not alone here – it’s understandable that incomplete requirements can be project killers.  Indeed, if we don’t spend enough time capturing and documenting requirements during the planning phase of the project, the re-work later on can quickly flood the project budget, ruin customer satisfaction and confidence and bring the project to a halt long before deployment of a final solution ever happens.  It doesn’t matter how detailed a customer ‘thinks’ their requirements are coming into an engagement…the project manager and team still must go through the painstaking tasks of verifying existing requirements and extracting additional requirements.  Remember, many customers come into the project looking for a solution to a symptom…something that may not even be the real project need.

Inconsistent or limited communication with the project customer.  Communication is job one for the project manager.  So if communication with the customer is not going well – for whatever reason – it can be disastrous for the project.  In order to maintain effective and efficient communication with the customer, the project manager should:


  • Layout - during project kickoff - how communication on the project is going to happen
  • Ideally, create a project communication plan document (even if it’s very basic, it will still set good expectations)
  • Keep to a schedule on the important customer communications like status reporting, status meetings, etc.


It sort of goes back to the idea of “slow and steady wins the race.”  Don’t be all over the board – be consistent with the customer.  It sets expectations with them since communication is a two-way street.

Irregular meeting schedules.  Part of the downfall in the communication category is irregular meeting schedules.  I had one project that I took over from another project manager in the very late stages of the engagement.  I thought we were just really in a roll-out mode so I tended not to put too much emphasis on adhering to the meeting schedule, and status reporting schedules.  If the customer said they didn’t see a need for a meeting, I canceled it…I was so busy on my other projects I considered it bonus time!  That was a mistake.  Customer confidence faded a little and the inconsistency was the key factor – even though it was at their request.  So, I went back to the basics – keep everything on a regular schedule: meetings, communications, status reporting, etc.  It was no surprise that the customer’s confidence and satisfaction greatly increased and we ended the engagement on a much higher note.

An unmonitored project budget.  I’m sure this just sounds very logical anyway, but I always contend that a 10% budget overrun is much easier to deal with and correct than a 50% overrun.  So catch it early!  How?  By managing the budget weekly, applying actuals to it weekly, and reforecasting it weekly.  If you do that, you’ll know every single week where you stand and the project budget will never get so out of hand that proactive and corrective action can’t be administered to fix the situation.

Non-existent or very limited risk planning and management.  Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, too many project managers – often myself included – tend to give too little emphasis to risk management. If we don’t take the time to properly identify risks at the beginning of the project, plan for risk mitigation and avoidance, and then track those risks throughout the engagement, then encountering them can bring the project down.  Period.  So, despite executive management’s resistance, sometimes, to spending too much time on risk identification and management, you must plan for it.  It’s critical to the success of your projects.

Summary /  call for input

Of course, there’s really no way to guarantee project success.  We can’t even guarantee it most of the time.  And while using strategic project management tools can enhance communication, collaboration and task management, it still won’t guarantee success.  The factors I’ve mentioned here need special attention – they must not be skipped.  And for every one mentioned, there are several more. 

How about or readers?  What pitfalls have you experienced that can – or have – brought your project to a screeching halt?  Please share your experiences and let’s discuss.



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