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Why Projects Fail: A Root Cause

FEATUREDec21stWhat is one of the root causes of project failure?

Last month we explored how much project management was enough.  It is generally accepted that just the right amount is needed based on the situation.  It is usually when the project is over or under managed that we have failures.  Common project management causes of failure are:


  • “Wishful” Planning – Planning that is based on the desire to have something done by a deadline and within a budget limit without regard to the reality of the situation.
  • Lack of portfolio management – initiating projects without regard to whether they are justified based on sound business reasons
  • Poor project control communication – Hiding the reality of project trouble until it is too late to do anything but bemoan a horrible outcome
  • Lack of accountability – Allowing project stakeholders to fail to deliver what is expected of them without accountability.
  • Absentee sponsors – Sponsors failing to perform their functions to provide direction and leverage.

Each of these causes is worthy of an article if not a book.  But, in this article, let’s look for a common root cause. 

In a recent webinar, Joseph Grenny hypothesized that the root cause underlying these and other problems in projects is failure to effectively hold crucial conversations.  It is the Abilene Paradox in action, where silence or avoiding difficult confrontations robs the project team and its organization of the ability to either avoid the causes of failures or to catch the causes early in their life to turn the project around or end it when that is appropriate.

What is the Abilene Paradox, you might be wondering?  It is the phenomena where a group of people collectively decide to do something that is counter to the preferences of everyone in the group and counter to the benefits of the organization or group as a whole.  It involves a breakdown in communications.  Each member of the group avoids saying what they think because they think it would be counter to what the group or its leadership prefers.  As a result valuable information is withheld and the group is not able to make effective decisions.

For example, an individual feels that a project plan is overly aggressive but fails to speak up because he or she is afraid that saying anything about it would have negative consequences.  As a result the “wishful” plan becomes the baseline plan and sets expectations for the project.  This leads to the inevitable overruns and the rushing, corner cutting and such that, in turn, causes poor quality product to be delivered late and over budget.

If, fact, this failure to speak up and hold the crucial conversation in a respectful and candid way is a root cause of these causes of project failure, what can we do about it?

If we are in a position of influence we can create a safe environment in which people do not feel threatened for saying what they think, even if it is not what everyone wants to hear.   If we are a less influential (everyone has some influence, usually more than they think they have) player, we can muster up the courage to “tell it as we see it” and learn the skills of how to confront directly and firmly with appropriate diplomacy.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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