7 Practical Tips to Avoid Project Failure

February 26, 2015

tips to avoid project failure

According to a 2015 study conducted by the Project Management Institute (PMI), only 64% of projects succeed. As you might expect, there is a dire associated cost of that failure rate. That same study also indicates that for every US$1 billion that is invested in projects and programs, a whopping US$109 million of that is wasted.

To use a baseball metaphor, we as project managers always want to bat 1000, i.e., have a perfect record when it comes to project success. However, that goal may not be realistic from the get-go–after you factor in available resources and budget, a challenging deadline,  difficult or non-communicative stakeholders, and so forth. And since you may not always have optimal ability to influence those factors that are necessary for project success, here are some practical tips that you can keep in mind to boost your probability of success:

1. Clearly define and document your project success factors: completion is not always success. Although it may seem obvious, when it comes to your role and your projects, it may be worth considering how you define project success. I have had many projects over the years that I have completed, with the quality of the deliverable meeting or exceeding expectations, and with my client more than satisfied.  However, if I overspent my budget or had my team members work overtime in order to meet a hard deadline, leading to morale issues, those completed projects could still be considered failures from an internal standpoint.

Classically, a project is considered a success if you meet the budget, timeline, and quality requirements of your deliverable.  There may be more importance placed on one or more of these factors, plus intangibles–such as positive working relationships with your stakeholders–which might influence whether or not your client comes back for repeat business.  Specifically defining your project’s key success factors for you and your team will go a long way to achieving your goals.

2. Instill and support an organizational culture that values project management structure and methodology. Research clearly shows that companies that adopt formal and standardized project management processes have a greater project success rate and realize greater efficiencies. That doesn’t necessarily mean developing a Project Management Office, or PMO, if you don’t already have one. In fact, I have seen almost a backlash against PMOs if they become too bureaucratic or cumbersome for the project manager: meaning that they spend too much time on process and documentation, and not enough time doing the actual work to support the achievement of the deliverable.  You can strike an effective balance of having some degree of standardized procedure and documentation, and still spend the time to plan and execute your project successfully.

3. Invest more time in your core planning trifecta: scope, time, and budget. If you have had formal project management training, you know that the classic components of high-level project success are: (1) delivering within the promised scope, (2) using the time allotted to produce, and (3) staying within your established budget. If you envision those factors as each side of a triangle, they carry equal weight. If you don’t have enough of one of those factors, such as time or money, it creates a strain on the other two factors. There should be proactive and objective analysis and planning for those factors.  Especially for less experienced project managers, there is a tendency to want to just get the project started. Inadequate upfront attention is paid to scheduling and allocation of available resources, identifying milestones that must be hit, and forecasting to achieve within the budget.   In having a structured management plan for each of these factors before you start executing the project, red flags will become apparent to you as potential project risks.

4. Develop a robust risk management plan. As a follow-up to the previous tip, you might identify red flags when, for example, you draft your initial project schedule or compare your proposed budget to the actual money that you’ll need to spend. It is important for the project manager to unearth potential roadblocks upfront, assign probabilities in percentages of specific risks occurring, and most importantly, have a proactive contingency strategy in place in case the risk materializes during the course of the project.

5. Communicate project risks as potential barriers to success. Although you don’t want to come across as an alarmist, the most effective and successful project managers communicate the inevitable red flags in an effort to be transparent about the things that could go wrong. Most clients and sponsors appreciate a direct and honest approach to your concerns, especially if you suggest contingencies identified in the previous tip.  These contingencies can also become part of the problem-solving process when risk materializes. As a bonus, clients might be more open to negotiating on constraints when they are identified earlier in the process.  Finally, communicating risks to your project team is invaluable, as team members can play a key role in suggesting solutions and vetting contingencies.

6. Value the role of history: take advantage of lessons learned. It is almost the nature of the beast that capturing lessons learned, as part of the Project Closure process, tends to be one of the least-practiced activities of busy project managers.  There is always the next project that needs your immediate attention, and you want to move on.  Whether a project is successful or not, lessons unearthed from a finished project might come into play for a future project and be of vital importance.  For longer term projects especially, consider making note of lessons learned during the project lifecycle, as opposed to waiting until the end of the project to capture them.  You then have useful intelligence for planning your next project, thereby improving your chances of success.  Recognize the value of lessons learned to your team and share with other project managers, so that the practice of learning from the past becomes contagious.

7. Cut your losses: throw out the “loser” projects. Whether it’s based on your initial analysis of the project or circumstances that emerge during the project execution, you might come to the conclusion that your project will not succeed (through no fault of your own). For example, you don’t have the right resources or the ability to negotiate, the IT project becomes irrelevant because of new emerging technology, or the project is no longer a priority for executive management.  Consider making the case to your sponsor to stop the project, thereby redirecting your budget and other resources into endeavors that have a better chance of success.  This is obviously not an option for all PMs in all circumstances, and you would have to get project sponsor approval.  Putting a red flag on the project as a whole may, in the end, be a last resort – it will dull the effect and minimize losses from a project that is deemed less likely to succeed. And it allows you to focus more energy and attention on those that are more likely to succeed.

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When a project fails, it comes with a tremendous cost to your organization. Improve your project management skills with these AMA resources and seminars.

About The Author

Ray Houdtzagers, PMP, is Learning Solutions Manager for AMA’s seminars on project management and purchasing. He has been with AMA for over 15 years, and has nearly 20 years of professional project management experience, primarily in the development of professional education programs for both classroom and multimedia-based delivery. He also currently serves as the head of the Project Management Office (PMO) for AMA’s USME seminar division.


  1. avatar

    I manage multiple Capital Improvement Projects. I agree with Andy, communicating your project status to stakeholders and your team is another critical component in my “tool box” that I use to keep my projects on time and on budget.

  2. avatar

    As someone who manages the day-to-day `running of a book Production Department, I want to emphasize the importance of regular, status meetings for any project. The meetings don’t have to be overlong, but they do need to hit on all the key points to make sure all the participants are always on the same page. Software and email updates help, but there is nothing like the face-to-face meeting to work out any unanticipated issues that may have come up and keep things on track. It’s human beings, after all, who are performing the tasks related to projects, and they need that periodic check-in keeps things humming along.

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