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Why do Projects go wrong?

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What goes wrong with projects: most common issues & challenges?

Every year organisations spend vast sums on initiatives typically described as 'projects'.  Every year, there are numerous examples of poor delivery performance, or disappointment with their outcome.

PMIS has delivered project management training to leading companies across the UK for well over a decade.  Throughout this period, we have been asking the question 'what goes wrong with projects' at the start of training courses, providing two very interesting results: 

  • the similarity of the responses to the above question whenever it is asked
  • the similarity of the results from across very different industries and environments.

The top results, as defined by the participants themselves, are:

What is noteworthy is that despite investment in recent years in improved project management ‘methods' (or methodologies), the above results have remained much the same.  This says something powerful - which PMIS believe is:

  • investing in methods assuming that project teams have the capabilities to use them is at best, optimistic
  • the focus of many current PM methods leaves much to be desired - focusing on the 'easy' stuff
  • too may Corporations and individuals are still light on skills to execute project management methods close enough to ‘best practice' - in addition, many have thin Corporate Project Governance processes and capability.

Projects are challenging, and probably always will be.  In business though, we still see lots of examples where organisations sometimes make them much tougher than they need to be.  Common examples of this are:

  • limited alignment/ understanding by key team members to/of the objectives of the project;
  • limited commitment to or awareness of key targets of the project plan;
  • limited understanding of the risks being faced by the project;  always being too busy fighting fires rather than doing important tasks such as managing project risks;
  • using very poor methods to present and discuss projects in their early stages;
  • issues or gaps in the project organisation and in particular the way responsibilities are defined across the team.

Joint Study by UK Royal Academy of Engineering & British Computer Society:

There are numerous surveys and a number of research tasks that have looked at exactly the same question.  One of the most commonly quoted is the Standish Chaos study, which also identifies the above as common challenges to projects. 

There are others as well that match the above results completely, for example a comprehensive report produced by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2004 in conjunction with the British Computer Society entitled the 'The Management of Complex IT projects', which states:

  • "The evidence received clearly and unanimously identified management factors and human, rather than technical issues as the prime causes of project failure."

Realities of Projects ......
The above image is provided with the kind permission of Viki Sauter

All of the issues outlined at the top of this page are the responsibility of the management function of the project, and are almost always the key management challenges on projects of any magnitude.  As corporations, we must ask ourselves: 'are we prepared to recognise this (culturally) and able (i.e. skilled) to manage projects far more effectively?'

Why is this?

Why do we think this happens, and more importantly, why do we think this recurs on a regular basis?  PMIS believes a lot has to do with:

  • many individuals who take on the management of a project for the first time underestimate the task they are taking 'responsibility' for, creating a very steep learning curve - add this to the most important phase on every project (i.e. definition), and the prospects of success are likely to be challenged before the project gets off the ground
  • often people only assume the role of project manager on an occasional basis throughout their whole career - by the time they manage their next project the scars of the last one (and the methods they were encouraged  to employ) are long forgotten (this is especially true for internal / business projects)
  • too many 'professional project managers' still do not routinely employ the fundamentals of project management
  • as organisations, still, we are often a long way from recognising the likely impact of the above.

One other challenge

We often encounter people who have just been give the title 'project manager' in similar circumstances to those described immediately above, often for the first time in their career.  One reaction, which is not uncommon, as you describe to them the fullness of the responsibilities of project managers, is to see them visibly sink at the thought of what they have let themselves in for.   This reaction is often a reflection of the poor quality process for choosing them as project managers within their organisations and the lack of support and preparation they get for this challenging role. 

Too many organisations today employ no real 'science' in the selection of project managers, and too often they do not make very clear to those selected, what they actually expect from them.  PMIS is happy to provide tips for project managers (below), whether you are new to this role or are an old hand.

So, what are the best solutions to the above?

There are no magic bullets like buy a new piece of software and all of the above goes away, but there are some improved methods and approaches, such as Agile - and a great idea would be to read our page on Agile Project Management and come back and re-read the list of "Top Results" of "what goes wrong" on this page. Food for thought for lots of businesses.

PMIS today if you would like to discuss the above or to get information on how PMIS could help you improve your project delivery capability. In today's world, we work in many countries.

Related Pages:

for more information on the above.

Click here for details of Project Management Training Courses from PMIS.



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