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Projects are Fragile… Yet Their Failure Is Not Always Indisputable

The flight from New York to London was without incident. The pilot avoided turbulence by requesting timely altitude changes, the flight attendants were attentive, and food and drinks were surprisingly pleasant. The landing, however, was a little rough and those last few seconds surely influenced some passengers’ opinion of this 7 ½ – hour flight. For some, it turned the entire flight into a bad experience or a “failure”… even though – and unbeknownst to the passengers – a rough landing was required for safety purposes given the strong crosswind upon arrival (the landing gear must make contact with the runway as soon as possible). For others, the flight was satisfactory after all.

There are many variables at play that will influence the outcome of a flight and stakeholders (here the passengers) will have their views on the quality of that outcome. The same can be said about projects, what drives them and their final output. What appears to be a failed or semi-failed project might actually contain some silver lining elements.


Projects are fragile

As shown in Table 1, many project risk variables (we count 23 of them) can impact the outcome of a project.

Those can be classified in 5 broad categories:

  1. People
  2. Tools
  3. Communication
  4. Planning
  5. Strategy

Since projects are driven by people, it is not surprising then that the People category is the largest with 9 out of 23 potential root causes of project failure with some occurring at the start of a project but most of them taking place mid-course of a project life cycle which makes it harder to mitigate them in a timely fashion.

A large number of mitigating factors will require pausing the project, otherwise this would be equated to the overused expression of “attempting to change a tire on a moving car’. Many of the proposed mitigants require the intervention of a third party (e.g. stakeholders, steering committee or management). This adds yet another set of challenges to the needed intervention.


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Another layer of complexity is introduced whenever project risk drivers are correlated or become part of a domino effect. Did the lack of resources cause the project to be delayed and then the cost overrun? Did the lack of sponsorship lead to the project manager becoming disengaged and project risks not flagged in a timely manner? Or did those variables manifest themselves independently?

In most cases these project risk elements will be correlated that is why it becomes critical to identify them as soon as possible in order to make the appropriate course correction to avoid a project failure.

Table 1 presents a list of project failure causes – from start to end of project – and proposes ways to mitigate them. The purpose of Table 1 is not to simply present a comprehensive list of mitigants (as variations of such mitigants can be implemented as well) but rather to suggest that what is critical is to identify the project risk variable and begin the process of curing it by a variety of approaches.


Table 1 – Project Failure Drivers


Project failure is not always what it appears to be

In light of such a long list of potential project failure points, it is natural to then take a closer look at project failure itself, or more precisely the various types of project failure that might ensue. These can be broadly classified by the nature of the impact to the project delivery, which can have objective characteristics (e.g. defective delivery or cost overrun) or more subjective ones (e.g. poorly communicated outcome even for a successful project).

As shown in Table 2, many apparent project failures can have their silver lining, especially when it comes to impact on ROI (Return on Investment). Indeed, what sometimes appears to be a categorical project failure, can actually hide some degree of silver lining.

Table 2 – Project Failure Types

Finally, it is worth noting, as depicted in Table 2, that even though a lessons learned exercise is a must at the conclusion of every project – especially those deemed to have “objectively” failed – the depth and intensity of such an exercise may vary by failure type as one considers other priorities calling upon an organization’s resources.

Karim Houry

Karim Houry has over 25 years of experience in implementing large scale and complex global initiatives for large and medium size companies as well as consulting for small organizations. Karim’s industry knowledge includes Financial Services (Credit Cards, Commercial Banking, FinTech, Brokerage), Hospitality and Manufacturing. His functional expertise extends across many areas such as internal consulting, project and program management, process improvement, reengineering, operational and credit risk management, post-trade processing, product development, technology implementation as well as strategic planning.