It happens to every Project Manager. Plus, it happens regularly too. Project failure is, it seems, a necessary evil. Maybe it is not a grand scale failure every time (let’s hope not anyway). Instead, it could be an everyday mishap that sets you back or requires a slight adjustment to your approach.

Some Project Managers worry deeply about the risk of project failure. Meanwhile, others work in a carefree manner. Actually, both mental states could result in future project failure. This is similar to the Yerkes-Dodson curve, read more in our article about project manager stress.

When you suffer a project failure, big or small, learn from it so that you can adjust your future actions and behaviour. Basically, it’s a form of continuous improvement. Finding the root cause is a key way to learn from your project failures. Take meaningful action by first exploring the real reason behind the failure.

5 Common Root Causes of Project Failure

Whilst there are many (many) reasons for project failure, when you get into the root causes, there are far fewer things which could go wrong.

Starting to identify the root cause of your downfalls as a project manager will help to get over any fear of project failure. Plus, it directs us to take head-on action to prevent future disasters. Here are 5 common root causes to project failure.

1. Winging it

Maybe you dream of tackle a multifaceted project all by yourself. You waltz from meeting to meeting, knowing all the details and info, influencing stakeholders and making brilliant decisions; left, right and centre. You see other people doing that and you could definitely do that too – right? Perhaps…

However, the reality is that project success doesn’t just happen. Let’s say that again… it – doesn’t – just – happen.

In short, it takes hard work, careful thinking and sensible strategies – all which need to happen in the background. We all have our own specialities and none of us are superhuman. So, if you’re afraid to plan ahead or ask for help and opinions from others, then you run the risk of messing up your project by “winging it” and failing.

Tell-tale signs when winging it could lead to project failure:

  • Becoming unstuck in meetings when you’re not prepared
  • Not foreseeing risks and allowing them to escalate into issues

2. Quitting

When you fear potential project failure, you can sometimes even fear progressing with the project at all! In fact, this can lead to premature quitting. Eventually, i’s possible that this fear of failure results in a literal act of quitting (the project or the job). However, you could also end up with low confidence and thus mentally quitting. In turn, you’ll create barriers and sabotage your own work subconsciously. Soon, this will lead, of course, to project failure. Plus, any form of quitting is likely to leave you with a bad professional reputation and future regrets hanging over you.

Indicators of a quitting mentality which could result in project failure:

  • Finding many situations where “I can’t…” or “it can’t be done”
  • Not being able to find any solutions to your problems

3. Stagnating

If you want to develop your project management career further, then you need to keep challenging yourself and acting upon constructive feedback. Refusing to improve yourself or acknowledge your weaknesses can lead to stagnation, and the vast majority of employers are looking for a forward-thinking ever-developing visionary, not someone who’s stuck in their ways.

Not listening to the feedback that you personally receive is creating a future opportunity for failure. It’s likely that the feedback was generated by a failure – big or small. A kind individual has given you that feedback as a way of changing the future and avoiding that failure. That’s right – feedback is a gift! Be sure to act on it to stop making the same mistakes in the future.

Examples where stagnating is becoming a problem:

  • Regularly facing similar barriers in your projects
  • When the feedback starts to include the word “again”

4. Relaxing

I’m not saying you should stress out 24/7. In fact, that’s one way that can lead to you quitting mentally. However, swing too far in the other direction will set you on the path to project failure too. Being too laid back leads to slip ups and mistakes. Being too lazy leads to not properly completing the work and taking short cuts. Combined, these all set you firmly on the path to project failure.

Signs to look out for when you’re too relaxed:

  • Sloppy mistakes being pointed out to you
  • Activities start to fall behind and milestones are missed through negligence

5. External influences

Maybe a political revolution causes your project to fail. Perhaps you’re the victim of a marketplace shift or disruption. It could even be corporate decisions made way above your head. Occasionally, events occur which are just outside of a project manager’s control! Whilst these can lead to project failure, there is little that you can do to plan for or avoid these root causes.

However, what you can control is your reaction, once they do happen. Don’t dwell on the past events that were out of your circle of influence. Eventually, that will drive you crazy and take up a major chunk of your precious time. Instead, think creatively to overcome the challenges in front of you.

For instance, times when you could be overwhelmed by external influence:

  • You find yourself saying or thinking “if only…”
  • You have too many conversations starting “they should have…”

The Bottom Line: Avoid the Causes of Future Project Failure

You are able to directly control 4 out of 5 of these reasons for project failure. Plus, you can control your actions for the 5th one. Recognise these points when they happen to you and make changes to your project management style as appropriate.

It’s often said that successful people view failure as a necessity. It’s something they just inevitably have to go through on their journey to becoming successful. As a result, some people happily accept the possibility of project failure. Meanwhile, others have an overwhelming fear of failure that can stop them dead in their tracks.

Basically, you want to find yourself in the middle ground. Bring the best of both mental states. In fact, the fear of project failure can inspire you to “pull your finger out” and manage the details. At the same time, an acceptance of the benefits of failure can give you the freedom to take calculated risks and drive progress.

Finally, are you looking to prevent your future failures? Why not challenge yourself to stop or mitigate the 5 ways to fail and see if it makes a difference? Feel free to share this on social media or send the link to a contact of yours. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it!

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s tried a number of different techniques over his 13 years of working on different types and sizes of projects. He blends classic project management techniques from PRINCE2, PMBOK and Lean Six Sigma with a dose of pragmatism and business reality to ensure retail projects are led, managed and delivered successfully.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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