Why Do Certain Projects Succeed While Others Fail?


One of the few certainties in project management is that managers will be forced to deal with uncertainties on a constant basis. Another of those rare certainties is that some projects will succeed while (many) others fail.

Even the most competent organizations, those identified as champions according to Project Management Institute (PMI) metrics, are reported to have an 8% project failure rate. The less-competent appear to fare far worse, experiencing failure on 66% of projects.

Obtaining accurate information on project success/failure rates is notoriously difficult. Many enterprises keep such information confidential. PMI research reports on the matter are well-regarded, but the PMI data is derived from participant self-reporting.

What Does a Successful Project Look Like?

Another problem is subjectivity associated with defining project success. It is realistic to envision scenarios where the project is completed late, over-budget, and to poor quality standards yet the delivering organization scrapes out a minimal profit (or maybe not) and calls the whole ordeal a success. The client might agree, probably out of sheer relief.

Global research figures from the PMI Pulse of the Profession 2018 Research Highlights by Industry and Region reveal an interesting view of the matter. Consider these project performance totals gathered from organizations across a variety of industries* worldwide:

  • Percentage of projects meeting goals and business intent: 69%
  • Percentage of projects completed on time: 52%
  • Percentage of projects completed within budget: 57%
  • Percentage of projects deemed failures: 15%

*(Sectors: Government, Construction, Energy, Financial Services, Healthcare, IT, Manufacturing, Telecom)

While nearly 70% of projects are adjudged successful on a practical basis, significantly fewer came in on time and budget. Project managers and their teams, and likely more than a few clients as well, may not view this as success. And a 15% failure rate leaves another 16% of projects in some limbo between success and failure. It is a confusing picture.

What Makes the Difference Between Project Success and Failure?

It is also a challenge to pin down exact reasons for success or failure. Going back to the PMI research, and accepting that running over time and budget does not necessarily mean failure, the most frequently reported cause of project failure was change in organizational priorities.

This finding fits well with the general viewpoint supported by the PMI data: While any number and combination of events and circumstances can affect a project, the root determinants of project success or failure often reside at the organizational level.

Data indicates that success rates are improved when a few key factors are present within the organization:

  • Project management is fully valued as a strategic competency.
  • Executive sponsors are actively engaged and invested in project success.
    Project scope is controlled effectively.
  • Organizational resources are committed toward growing value delivery capabilities.

At the practical level where project management teams live, success or failure often depends on how things are done in a hands-on sense. At this level, strategy, resources, and tools make all the difference.

Two Foundational Keys to Project Success

Failure to execute on time can lead to loss of revenue for the client or even a complete miss of a market opportunity.

Project managers need to maintain project velocity. This requires tight communication links with team members and stakeholders. It also calls for keeping an accurate handle on resource availability and maximizing utilization to cut time waste that leads to blown deadlines. Having access to project management tools that support communication and efficient resource scheduling is critically important.

The ability to effectively react to change and respond to emergent problems is defense against another primary cause of project failure: the unexpected. Project managers should leverage the capabilities of modern project management software to model the effects that changes may have on a project’s timeline and visualize how contingency plans might play out. Ideally carried out in the planning stages, this strategy can also be invaluable when on-the-fly solutions are demanded.

Choose Success in Your Project Work

Increasing the odds of achieving consistent success and outputting high quality in your project work takes a three-pronged approach. Organizational alignment with and support for project work, skillful planning and resource management, and a powerful, efficient project and resource management toolset are the most common factors that set successful projects apart from the other sort.

Get these three items in line and watch your projects succeed while others fail.


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