25 Feb 2020

Early Signs your Project Might be Doomed

Early Signs your Project Might be Doomed

We know – there’s a million reasons projects fail – but here’s a few to look out for early on so you can get things back on track.

In its CHAOS Report, the Standish Group found that out of all 50,000 projects in the study, 71% failed to deliver on time, on budget, or with satisfactory results. It’s worse for bigger big projects with 91% of medium-sized projects failing and a staggering 94% of large projects missing the mark. It’s no wonder we need project management professionals!


  1. The first is the “benevolent fail” – a project that fails spectacularly after its over. The thing gets completed and is commissioned but it fails to deliver on its Return on Investment (ROI).

  2. Then there’s the “ill-conceived at conception fail” – a project that is expensive, unpopular from the start and wound up before or soon after its completed.

  3. Perhaps the worst is the “hybrid fail”- a project that could have been a good idea if it were better thought through. Nobody gets what they want, you have many lessons learned but a pile of money was spent, and time wasted in the process.

Whichever category of here’s a few early signs to watch out for that things might be heading off the rails.

Too much positivity

Positivity is not a bad thing – but it’s easy to get over excited in the first flush of the dawn of a new project. Planners can not only overestimate the likelihood of success and underestimate the costs but also underestimate the required responses to challenges or failure. Equally watch out for an overly excited leadership team that spends more time selling the project than working out what’s needed. On the flip side – if executive or stakeholder support is at best described as ambivalent – you may need to spend some time rallying the troops.

Treating risk right

Every project has risk – so the key is to be not too dismissive of it or over-sensitive to it. Solid governance and a thorough discussion on the types and probability of risk needs to happen upfront and be revisited regularly. These discussions have to be with the people that really know – watch out for both the overly optimistic and overly negative.

Short termism

Ambitious projects can be particularly vulnerable to the “spooked stakeholder”. If there’s a lot of money on the line or the outcome is higher risk - there can be a tendency for some to pivot, change course or even try to kill a perfectly good project based on some unexpected negative short-term feedback. These certainly need to be addressed – just make sure the response is a measured, risk assessed one and not an emotional one.

Lack of emotional maturity

Project members and stakeholders that consistently exhibit poor behaviour, a lack of emotional intelligence or a willingness to engage can tank a perfectly good project. This of course applies to the project manager too! You need to not only check your own behaviour and ego but put your soft skills (link to other blog) to good use by role modelling correct behaviour and being aware of the emotional state of your fellow team members.

Insufficient or incomplete resources

A lack of financial resources, time or talent and skill will kill an otherwise great project. Knowing up front what’s required can be hard work – but it’s worth spending time with those in the know to uncover what success will really take. The project manager is often the only one with the perspective and overall viewpoint to spot inherent weaknesses in resourcing. It’s then a matter of utilising those soft skills again to make sure the relevant decision makers understand the true picture in order to make informed choices.


Inconsistency in execution

It’s obvious, every project needs a process to follow to succeed. Whatever methodology you apply make sure it’s applied consistently as this breeds familiarity and allows people to focus on the work not the process. If every task in a project seems to be a priority, it’s a good sign that process is failing for a number of reasons – the priority process itself is broken, the timeline is too tight or not being followed or people don’t understand the task.

Projects fail for lots of reasons – and way too often from issues or challenges that could have been addressed if picked up on early. It can be challenging to confront these issues – but as with most things life – it's better to fix it now than hope it will fix itself down the road. Pull together a list of project fail markers you think are most relevant to your organization and make sure to check them regularly.



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