Mirror Mirror on the Wall — Why do Projects Fail?


Mirror mirror on the wall – which project is the fairest of them all?

Projects fail for a variety of reasons, but there are common themes that keep cropping up.

Sometimes organisations and projects need an external and objective assessment so that they can catch the issues early.

Such an assurance assessment entails understanding “the big picture – seeing the forest for the trees” while also understanding the project or program details.

The following are some of the common themes for project failure:

  • The contract between the Client and Contractor/Consultant is unclear: Sometimes the way that the project is set up unfortunately dooms the project to failure – or at least to experiencing extreme frustrations. Some examples of poor contracts are:
  • the scope is not well defined,
  • the deliverables are not clearly defined in terms of details and granularity,
  • roles are not clearly defined,
  • escalation procedures are not identified.


  • The project scope control is not well managed and the impact analysis of proposed changes are not well understood. Scope creep can particularly occur between stages when initial requirements are gathered and when the “blue print” is completed. The management of user expectations and the balancing of “must have” versus “nice-to-have” requires vigilant guidance, conduct of trade-offs and documenting and sign-off of decisions.


  • There is extreme naiveté and “positive bias” in planning. Often clients relatively new to major transformation projects tend unfortunately to overestimate their competency in project management and underestimate the complexity of a multi-faceted people, process and technology change. Whereas they commonly wouldn’t be a first-time “owner-builder” in the design and construction of their own personal residential house, they believe that they can handle the complexity of business-critical programs


  • Organisations don’t understand with their hearts and minds their actual “maturity assessment” as to replicability of their portfolio and project management practices.   Ironically, some organisations even conduct the independent maturity assessments – and end up understanding intellectually “with their heads” their lack or maturity (e.g. Level 1, ) but don’t understand “with their hearts” the lack of readiness and capability to do major transformation projects. They proceed with well-intended but inexperienced project leadership.


  • There is an adversarial relationship instead of collaborative teaming between the client and consultants/contractors.   Sometimes unfortunately there arises an adversarial relationship that results in focusing on the problems exclusively and a “win-lose” relationship. This can become toxic over time where individuals get “stuck” in making the other party look bad instead of getting on with the project and finding pragmatic and appropriate resolutions to problems.


  • There are poor governance processes or escalation procedures if problems occur. This is one of the most common reasons for project and program failures. Often the Steering Committee is not aware of their objectives and roles (e.g. overall strategic guidance, resolution of project resourcing conflicts, major scope change, etc). Unfortunately all too often the Project Sponsor or key Steering Committee members skip meetings or believe that such meetings can merely be “reporting” meetings where they get to hear reports and “pontificate” — instead of their real job of “making the hard decisions” on funding, major scope change, “back-filling” key resources to allow better participation on the project.


  • There is poor stakeholder understanding. That is, there is an incomplete understanding of all of the key stakeholders who will benefit by the changes, and there is limited understanding of which stakeholders are “on-board” and which ones will require additional coaching and listening to.  This is often accompanied by an “under-cooked” communications plan and implementation activities, i.e. communications may be reactive, inconsistent or non-existent.


  • The benefits realisation planning and ownership is not well-thought-through. Often projects have difficulty in “seeing the forest for the trees” and staying focussed on the desired outcomes and quantified benefits of the transformation projects. Similarly, certain projects (and organisations) pay limited attention to the longer-term sustainability of the benefits and the ownership and managing of the gathering and reporting on the actual benefits realised.   This presents confusion and ambiguity as to whether the project or program has actually been successful.

So be careful of over-confidence when doing an assessment of your project or program.   Often there are “blind spots” which prevent us from really seeing what the mirror is telling us!


About addedval

Ken's journey has been as a pathfinder who seeks out opportunities for making a real difference to global teams working together effectively and realising amazing business results. This covers his work as a Partner for a major management consulting company in multiple countries, as an entrepreneur with starting and selling various businesses, as a property developer and capital raiser and as head of various boutique consultancies.
This entry was posted in Business, Collaboration, Leadership, Planning, Portfolio Management, Project Management, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s