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Trouble Ahead

Our top 10 reasons why projects fail

As project and analysis consultants to a wide range of South African companies, we’ve seen our fair share of project struggles. Whether it’s time or cost overruns, or just not being able to meet the project objectives, we’ve jumped in to assist with quite a few tough situations.

The interesting thing, however, is that despite their completely unique goals and nature, projects usually fail for the same reasons, and it almost always comes down to a set of clear foundational issues that need to be addressed.

We rounded up our Analyze team to get their views on the most common reasons why projects fail. This is what made it to our top 10:

1. Poor communication

Clear and frequent communication is a critical project success factor. Without it you find yourself in a situation where nobody knows what’s going on or what’s expected of them.

Roles & responsibilities, project plan details, progress updates, issues and risks all need to be part of an ongoing communication plan to ensure that everyone’s up to date and ready to take action.

2. Lack of stakeholder buy-in & support

Stakeholders should have a vested interest in the project. If they don’t see the value in what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle from day one.

It is important therefore to ensure that your stakeholders have a clear understanding of “what’s in it for them” and what you’re going to be needing from them in return.

3. Poorly defined requirements

In order to properly define your requirements you first need a clear understanding of the business problem (or opportunity) you’re trying to tackle. Treating symptoms without understanding the cause is the easiest way for a project to go off course.

Requirements also need to be aligned with business goals and objectives in order to deliver real value at the end of the project.

4. Insufficient planning

There’s a saying that goes “a goal without a plan is just a wish”, and with projects this is most certainly true.

It is important to take the time to do proper planning upfront by breaking down your project goal into the various tasks and sub-tasks required to achieve it. If you don’t have a clear picture of how you’re going to get there and what resources will be required, you are destined to fail.

5. Unrealistic estimates & timelines

Delivery dates cannot be set without first understanding the effort involved, and effort estimates cannot be provided without supporting details like requirements specifications and design considerations.

We have to get out of the habit of making statements like: We have to be live by x date. Rather rephrase that statement to: We will determine what can be delivered by x date.

6. Scope Creep

Once you’ve agreed on what your project will deliver, by when and at what cost, you have to safeguard against unplanned scope changes.

Saying yes to changes that “creep” into your plan without highlighting & agreeing the time and cost impacts with the project sponsor puts unnecessary stress on the project and can ultimately lead to non-delivery.

7. Competing priorities & over allocated resources

When you have key resources working on many different projects at the same time it’s a difficult balancing act to adequately service all.

Priorities change and resource allocation can be adjusted, causing various cross impacts and delays. If a ring-fenced team is not an option, this needs to be raised as a major risk from the project outset.

8. Lack of strong leadership

You have to ensure that your project manager has the right level of qualification and experience.

We’ve seen many instances of what we refer to as the “accidental project manager” where someone who’s done well in their job has been promoted to a project management role. Realistically however, project management comes with its own unique skill set – something which can only be achieved with the correct training

9. Ineffective progress tracking

How many times have you asked the question: What % of this work is complete? More often than not, the response will very much be a guess, typically an overinflated one, giving you a false view of actual progress made.

A far better way to track progress is by looking at the planned start date and completion date of an activity, and then the actual work items that have been completed for that task. You want to avoid a situation where you’ve been sitting at 90% for a couple of weeks with no clear end in sight.

10. Poor risk management

Risks need to be actively managed throughout the project lifecycle. Risk management therefore does not stop at simply creating a risk log at the beginning of the project.

Mitigation and avoidance tactics need to be executed in a timeous fashion and your project team should always be on the lookout for new risks that may crop up as the project progresses.

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Leave a comment

  1. Interesting post, especially on point number 3.
    We have used our experience in the area to develop a course specifically to deal with ‘requirements development for data’. We see this being an enormous opportunity to improve the outcomes of projects. There is nothing else in the market in that area, and even more generally, very little on how to define great business requirements. We have all met great business analysts, and some that are not so great. As an industry, it seems that the lack of professional development in this area means we will continue to have too many in the latter group, sadly.

  2. Thanks Margaux! While I think there are some great foundation skills being created in our leading IS courses at university level, supported by good training from companies like FTI, the reality is that these skills take practise and need to be honed over a long period of time. I believe the key to growing good BA skills lies in the combination of academic grounding, training and mentorship to ensure the overall growth of the profession.

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