Why projects fail (part one)

We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse. – Rudyard Kipling

[otw_shortcode_dropcap label=”I” font=”Dancing Script” background_color_class=”otw-blue-background” size=”large” border=”border” border_color_class=”otw-silver-border” shadow=”shadow”][/otw_shortcode_dropcap]f we tried to make a search on Google about causes for IT project’s failures, we’d get tons of results over the question that the subject is a very sensible one.

Indeed, a number of studies have been completed that look into the success / failure rates of projects. These studies indicate that serious problems exist across a broad cross-section of industries.

The question is: why a so large number of projects fail and nobody is able to stem this phenomenon? I’ve been asked this question since I was promoted to the Project Manager function and I’ve a series of answers that I’m trying to illustrate in the articles I’ll publish in the next weeks.

Let’s start with describing the causes because if we analyzed them, we could probably find some tricks to avoid the most of them (it’s the principle of the lessons learned).

The company Bull, the French computer manufacturer and systems integrator, on 1998, requested an independent research company, Spikes Cavell, to conduct a survey in the UK to identify the major causes of IT project failure in the finance sector.

A total of 203 telephone interviews were conducted with IT and project managers from the finance, utilities, manufacturing, business services, telecoms and IT services sectors in UK. All the managers interviewed had previously taken the lead in integrating large systems within organizations in the Times Top 100.

The main IT project failure criteria identified by the IT and project managers were:

  • missed deadlines (75%)
  • exceeded budget (55%)
  • poor communications (40%)
  • inability to meet project requirements (37%).


The main success criteria identified were :

  • meeting milestones (51%)
  • maintaining the required quality levels (32%)
  • meeting the budget (31%)

The survey  reveals that the major causes of project failure during the lifecycle of the project are a breakdown in communications (57%), a lack of planning (39%) and poor quality control (35%).

Here is the final ranking:

  1. Bad communications between relevant parties – 57%
  2. Lack of planning of scheduling, resources and activities – 39%
  3. No quality control – 35%
  4. Milestones not being met – 34%
  5. Inadequate coordination of resources – 29%
  6. Costs getting out of hand – 26%
  7. Mismanagement of progress – 20%
  8. Overall poor management – 17%
  9. Supplier skills overstretched – 13%
  10. Supplier under-resourced – 12%
  11. Insufficient measurable outputs – 11%
  12. Supplier people not consistent – 4%


Even though it’s only one of the tons of reports about the subject, it’s useful to understand what are the major troubles; believe me when I say that I experienced all the trouble mentioned above during my career.


Let’s introduce what I think is the matter behind the first trouble of the list: “Bad communication between parties”.

As a matter of fact, there are some barriers to effective communication that we must try to remove because, if not addressed, they could contribute to the failure of any project.


  1. Uncertainty of message: when we are simply unsure of what to say and when to say it
  2. Faulty presentation: this may occur by choosing the wrong medium, e.g. sending an email when a face-to-face meeting is better
  3. Limited capacity of audience: where those receiving the message do not have the necessary training to interpret the information
  4. Unstated assumptions: where both parties are unaware that they each have different assumptions about the message
  5. Incompatible viewpoints: failure to communicate because both parties view circumstances from completely different perspectives
  6. Deception: deliberately withholding certain aspects of the message
  7. Interference: noisy occurrences that affect our ability to concentrate when serious conversation is needed, e.g. a noisy office or constant interruption
  8. Lack of channels: where people who have information with which others may usefully benefit–and vice versa–but who are unaware of the needs of each other because there are no formal channels allowing such exchange of information
  9. Cumulative distortion: the longer the chain of people receiving and passing information the more distorted the message becomes by the time it reaches those last in the chain


What tools have we to demand to afford these barriers? What skills have we to improve?

Effective communication is an essential leadership skill but is also the first skill to be underestimated and is the first cause of projects failure.

In the next article, I’ll deepen the matter of communication, trying to give us some tricks to avoid the most common mistakes.

Stay tuned for the other points of the preceding list, because I’ll deepen all the troubles mentioned, giving tools, techniques and tricks to manage our projects in an easier way.


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