Learning from Our Project Failures

In project management, unfortunately, failure is a way of life.  You’ll never realize 100% success on your projects.  In fact, you’ll likely never run a project that is 100% successful.  While we like to talk about the project successes out there…and we often do talk about best practices, how to succeed and what ‘x’ number of steps might guarantee success (which can never really be true), the reality is we must also talk about the failures and what we can learn from them so we turn today’s failures into tomorrow’s success stories. 

What we need to do is learn as much as we can from history so it doesn’t repeat itself. We need to remember the bad project situations as we move forward and manage another project tomorrow, the next day and the next day. Right?

As I see it, there are two things we can do. Look at some of the reasons why projects frequently fail. And make sure we incorporate lessons learned into the project management process – something many of us either can’t find the time to do at the end of the engagement or we just plain tend to omit. 

Let’s consider four key general reasons – from my own observations – why many projects fail…

Lack of communication.  I believe communication is both the most important responsibility of the project manager and the biggest reason for project failures. It’s the most critical piece of the project management puzzle and it’s something many of us struggle to do well. As a project manager, you must be ready to be the focal point of communication for your project and carry that task out well.

Incomplete or inaccurate requirements.  This is definitely linked to project planning. Whether your project team is helping the customer with all of the requirements definition or if the customer has come to you with detailed requirements, they still need to be reviewed in great detail because missed requirements or poorly documented requirements end up costing the project budget infinitely more dollars down the road in re-work than it requires to just verify and drill down to more detailed requirements up front on the project. Do it right the first time and you’ll greatly lessen the risk of having a project halted when funds run out or the customer is just too frustrated to move on.

Poor leadership.  Weak project leadership – meaning a project manager who can’t run a project well – is another major contributor to project failures. The project manager must be a great communicator, a strong leader, an organized project professional, and have the dedication and stubbornness to make good decisions and stick to them. If too many of these characteristics are lacking, the project may flounder or completely fail.

Lack of project planning overall.  If not enough time is spent up front in planning the project and getting a good schedule and the proper documents in place as well as mapping out the resource usage and the budget, then the project can get into trouble quickly. Plan well up front and you set a positive and productive course for your project for the rest of its life cycle. And remember, it will never be cheaper and you’ll never have more time to do the right project planning later on in the project. Do it up front or your project may be doomed before it is even started.

The always valuable, but often avoided lessons learned session

I know it’s very hard to face the problems when a project goes horribly wrong. Especially if you, as the project manager, were somewhat to blame. But the best way to ensure we don’t repeat the same failures is to make sure we learn from them. So, conducting a lessons learned session is definitely the right way to go. And yes, even conduct them on successful projects because there is always something we could have done better.


Failure happens. And it will continue to happen if we don’t learn from mistakes, oversights and customer missteps and mis-management.  Project managers – what are your thoughts on lessons learned? How often do you actually perform lessons learned at the end of – or during – a project? And concerning my failure list above – what are your thoughts? Please share your own list and let’s discuss.


Comments (10) -

By charity at 10/16/2015 7:15:48 PM

I understand the idea of lessons learned meetings but I have found that most companies use this as a place to assign blame and further destroy a weak team. I have gotten away from this approach because of this aspect. In doing so, my teams moral has increased, the workmanship has gotten better, and communication has improved. All these positives come from fear of having to have one of these meetings.

My point is, I have rarely seen a lessons learned meeting ran in a positive way that can add value to the team without destroying it.

By Lex Metzke at 10/16/2015 7:31:21 PM

I definitely agree with the clear points defined here and which are the most common sources of trouble. Another source of problems I often see, is that projects are too big and have a very long runtime. Especially when complexity is increasing this is a high risk. The project environment is changing more rapid as the whole economy is changing faster and faster. So long running projects have huge risks in key resources leaving the project and requirements from the start may wel not fit anymore.

By G.SURAREDDY at 10/16/2015 8:55:04 PM

Dear Mr Brade Egeeland

thanks for the Ideas you have Stated

I agree one should have a Srtong,Technically sound

Profesional leader with Quick Decision making and

Monitering every day the progress with proper guidance to his Team

My views:

1.right Project team
2.Financial freedam
4,Pragmatic decision making
5.Strategic Implementation of the project Schedules
6.Every boy should focus on goals laid down by the leader

Before starting the Project these analysis should be carried out
A.Contingency Analysis
B.Risk Analysis
c.Sensitive analysis

with the above we can surely <ake Project Success
from ROI and with Client satsifaction
and with in time frame and with in the budget

By Andrea Cobbold at 10/16/2015 10:47:05 PM

I have conducted Lessons Learned meetings where positive comments using the terminology, "...if we could go back, knowing what we know now, we could have done ______ differently or sooner" were explicitly encouraged.  The only pronoun that was permitted to be used in the meeting was "we" with the notional idea that project processes could be positively influenced in the future.   Amazing how the lack of individual blame impacted behaviors on the following projects.

By Bhaskar Gunti at 10/17/2015 12:14:05 AM

This article definately highlighted very key ingredients of of project management and their role in project success or failure. Most importantly, PMs/leaders tend to ignore importance of project management framework and how to  leverage best practices from the framework itself. Eg., Project scope management, Time, Cost, Communication, Stakeholder, Finance and Risk etc I know it sounds theory but, they are there to  ensure project is properly managed if not, to raise alerts required to corrections required. But, most scenarios problem starts with scope and acceptance, planning and execution, skill required vs available, decisions to be made vs procrastination so on so forth.

Lessons learned session in each phase will definitely help to improve the subsequent phases or projects provided these learnings becomes part of one or other project management contol rather people or person specific feedback. As charity said, this process destroy collobaration and trust between teams and individuals which to me is an other ingradiant of project success.

By Mike Stothard at 10/17/2015 11:13:23 AM

I think you guys may have missed a trick here. The lessons learnt process cannot be left to those outside the project to use the lessons in a blame culture. If you are in an organisation where a blame culture exists then get out now!
The lessons learnt process is something that a good project manager uses in project team building and strategy planning meetings and keeps this within the team during the project. We all know change happens and as project managers we need to use change to benefit the final outcomes of our projects. When change happens we often change strategy and an examination of the lessons learnt from past strategy decisions and how this can be used in change management is the way to go. A good team does this naturally but try a sit down strategy planning meeting and openly discuss strategies that were in place before and how they can be improved and the lessons learnt and ways to improve will come from an open team.
Lessons learnt to share with the rest of the organisation are then far more positive and problem solving, much less likely to be the targets of blame.

By CHANDAN KUMAR PATIL at 10/18/2015 7:29:36 PM

All key issues are well defined, if you dont want to fail in your project then read this article.
Every failure is the way of success.
Practice makes a man perfect.
do your job efficiently and review your works in between.
check backward when you go for steps ahead.
Take advice from your trustworthy smart couligues.
take benefit from the experience of your co-workers.
always in link with your superiors.
Share your ideas to superiors/seniors.
do hard work smarly.
complete the project in given time period.
Generate a strong team for target achievment.
Belive in your team members.

By Diego Gonzalez at 10/19/2015 7:55:12 AM

Excellent post Brad.

As a beginner in the project management field, this post definitely describes what I agree with you and believe the lessons learned are important to do at the end of all projects.

We all learn from our small or big mistakes on a daily basis in our lives. Same approach should be apply as a last phase in all projects of any size.

Leadership and lack of communication I personally think are the most common to be present in failure projects. Leadership is key to success in all projects; however, it could be hard to execute when executing big projects. Although, lack of communication is always present and it would be excellent as project managers think how it can be avoid with time.

I have worked with multicultural teams and I have challenged myself on how to understand people I am working with.

Thanks for the post, I will save as favorite. Really good information.

Kind regards  

By Kufakunesu at 10/20/2015 5:34:24 AM

This is a very useful article in that it reminds of the important aspects of project management. One thing that is certain is reference is made to the team not an individual. If a project fails it is the teams responsibility to correct what they have done wrong. Our challenge the blame is apportioned to the project manager. He on his own would not have done better than what the whole team would have done together.

Lessons learnt sessions are very fruitful if held in a manner that does not apportion blame on any individual. Remember the terminology is what could we have done better, not what could you have done better.

I understand we are always pressured to deliver the best but there must also be some trade ins. If time is not available the get enough resources at least to cater for the time frame that cannot be stretched. At least one aspect of the project must be flexible enough to give the team room to flex in the project space.

The other aspect I see mostly being dominant in project failure is team dynamics. You may not expect a newly formed team to perform wonders on their first project.  Self organizing teams would actually benefit from lessons learnt as they correct their errants on upcoming projects.

Overally I agree with the contents of this article.

By Ted panek at 10/20/2015 9:53:34 PM

You are spot on with you article. Many of your findings are very real as to what causes the failures. My concern s are that many companies and organizations choose to not spend the time to learn from their mistakes.
There are two big reason s for not doing g tbis as I have seen.
1) People believe it is time that they cannot afford to waste as they must roll onto the new projects.
2) Many senior people feel it's a blame game of why something did not go well and avoid the whole excersize all together.

It's rather sad that we continue to perpetuate the same problems and reasons for failure from project to project.
What is the definition of insanity?

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