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Learning from Troubled Projects

Before we review the common traits of many successful projects, there’s a lot to be learned from "less than successful" projects. From my experience, the reasons for project troubles can be generally classified in two groups: organizational-level issues and project-level issues.

One of the key differences in the two groups is the level of control that the project manager has over these factors. For project-level issues, the project manager has tremendous influence on these matters. In most cases, the project manager can either avoid the issue or take action to resolve it if it does occur. For organizational-level issues, the project manager cannot generally "fix" the problem, but the project manager can certainly have influence on them by asking the right questions, anticipating the associated risks and issues, focusing extra efforts to compensate for the issue, and developing contingency plans to minimize the impact on the project.

Also, please note that these issues are not exclusive. In most cases, there is overlap, and if you have one of these factors present in a project, you will generally have others. Table 3.1 summarizes these issues, gives specific examples of each and notes what type of issue it is (organizational, project, or both).

Table 3.1 Common Reasons for Troubled Projects




Key Learning Point

Project not aligned

Project not aligned with business unit or organizational goals; Project not aligned with other projects


Verify alignment before project kicks off

Lack of management support

Insufficient funding; Insufficient resources; Issues not resolved; Senior mgmt performance criteria not aligned with project success criteria


Understand project impact of organizational structure; Ensure proper senior mgmt involvement in project organization; Advocate PMO and Steering Committee structures

Lack of stakeholder"buy-in"

Purpose and goals not clear; "Trust" relationship not established; Inadequate communications; Mismatched expectations; All stakeholders not involved


Gain acceptance of project purpose, goals, and success criteria up front; Ensure all stakeholders are identified and consulted; Constantly communicate and validate understanding

Inadequate project sponsor

Inactive, unengaged sponsor; Lack of leadership; Ethical issues; Not handling organizational issues; Not supportive of project management process


Educate the sponsor on their roles and responsibilities; Gain formal authorization of project and the project manager position; Understand sponsor’s motives and incentives

Too many project sponsors

Conflicting project goals; Lack of ownership; Political battles


Relates to the need for proper project alignment and clear roles and responsibilities

Lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities

Inefficient work efforts; Missed deadlines; Lower team morale; Delayed issue resolution


Use Responsibility Matrix to clarify all roles and responsibilities; Review roles and responsibilities with each individual; Validate expectations in advance

Poor communications

Inconsistent, incomplete, or non- existent status information on key project metrics; Inadequate tracking and monitoring of project progress; Not listening to stakeholder concerns or feedback; Not using proper mediums for certain project communications; Messages are not clear or occur too frequently


Develop a project Communications Plan that is acceptable to all stakeholders; Establish tracking and monitoring mechanisms during planning; Constantly seek questions and feedback; Understand each stakeholder’s perspective; Clearly set context of each message

Price wars

Due to budget reduction measures or market pressures, management agrees to perform project at or below estimated costs


Develop complete, detailed project budgets; Communicate associated risks; Improve negotiating skills

Resource conflicts

Lack of dedicated team members; Key resources not available when scheduled


Develop project Resource Plan; Gain commitments from Resource Managers; Encourage centralized organizational structure for resource planning/ deployment

Inadequate project manager

Lack of leadership; Inexperienced or untrained project manager; Ineffective project manager


Organizational commitment to PM education; Use of PM mentorship programs

Underestimate change impact

Not understanding the complete effects on both existing processes and people that the "change" introduced by the project will have; Not properly preparing or planning for the "change"


Use project sponsor and business process owners to champion the new process; Involve additional stakeholders to understand their needs and to solicit their support; Plan for the necessary communications and training (change management plan) Plan for the "disruptive" deployment period; Utilize pilot approaches to minimize impact

Inadequate planning

Management does not require or allow time for proper planning; Incomplete scope or deliverables list; Incomplete "work" identification; Lack of detailed schedule; Inadequate risk identification; Assumptions not documented; Lack of schedule and budget contingency


Educate senior mgmt on the value of proper planning; Use standard methodology for project planning; Gain formal acceptance of Project Plan before proceeding; Develop realistic project schedule and budget, as well as tools and processes to keep updated; Identify and document project risks and mitigation strategies

Lack of change control management

Scope of work increases without proper schedule, budget, or resource adjustments; Changes occur to deliverables, schedule, or budget without proper notification and approval


Utilize formal change procedures to properly assess and control communicate any change to the scope, schedule, budget, and targeted project deliverable

Lack of completion criteria

Missed stakeholder expectations; Increased costs or missed deadlines due to re-work; Lack of smooth transition from one phase to another


Ensure success criteria is established during planning phase; Define user acceptance criteria for project deliverables; Define exit criteria for project phases

Inadequate progress tracking

Inability to measure project status and probability for success; Inability to review project at key points to make go/no-go decisions


Establish and execute periodic status meetings and reporting (weekly in most cases); Review project at scheduled intervals against established criteria to determine if project should progress into next phase

Unforeseen technical difficulties

Effort spent resolving technical issues drive missed schedules and increased costs; Unproven technology does not meet user expectations


Structure project to deal with high risk technical challenges early in the project; Prove the technology before making additional investment; Leverage technical expertise to support team capabilities

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