A person surrounded by flaming documents, representing why projects fail.
5 Reasons Why Projects Fail (And How To Prevent Them)
A person surrounded by flaming documents, representing why projects fail.

5 Reasons Why Projects Fail (And How To Prevent Them)

Managing professional projects is hard work! It takes skillful coordination and communication to keep a project going, especially in technical areas like software development. That’s why sometimes, despite our best efforts, projects do fail. But why? And how can we prevent this? Well, there are thousands of possible reasons. But there are definitely a few common themes behind why software projects (and other projects) fail. 

Let’s explore what makes a project a failure, the five top reasons projects fail, and how you can prevent them to make our projects a success.

When is a project a failure?

A failed project is one that didn’t meet expectations around deliverables, outcomes, budget, or timeline. 

That might sound pretty clear-cut. But projects aren’t like a test or exam, with clear standards for passing or failure. In fact, nearly every project deviates from expectations in some way — especially those with many collaborators and moving parts. 

Obviously, not every project that turns out differently than expected is a failure. Determining whether or not a project has failed is really up to the people involved. 

Which key objectives, or metrics, were most important? For example, one team might consider their project a failure if it’s grossly over budget. Another might deem the quality and usability of the finished product to be most important. 

Knowing your team’s priorities — before you get started — can help you avoid failure by keeping everyone focused on what matters most. 

5 common reasons why projects fail

There are so many reasons why a project can fail. 

But often, they boil down to misunderstanding the project’s realities. That can be due to poor communication, unrealistic expectations, insufficient resources, or a host of other issues. 

Here are five of the most common reasons a project can fail, along with how to prevent them.  

The first reason projects fail: scope creep

‘Scope’ is a quick way of describing all the work that’s included in the project — goals, deliverables, deadlines, and tasks. 

Does that scope keep expanding, little by little? You’re experiencing scope creep, and it’s a silent project killer.

Your team simply cannot do everything. When more and more work keeps getting added to their plates, they’re being set up for failure before they even start. 

How to prevent scope creep

First of all, clarity! Begin the project with a super-clear understanding of what’s involved.

Review and assess any addition to that scope carefully — and make sure the team is provided with more time or resources to account for it. 

The second reason projects fail: poor communication

At its core, project management is all about communication

To get work done, everyone relies on consistent access to the information they need, both from their project manager and their colleagues. 

Without strong communication, people don’t know what’s going on, what needs to get done, or who’s in charge of what. It’s pretty much a recipe for failure! 

How to prevent poor communication

Communication is exactly what most project management apps are designed to help with, particularly on remote teams. The right tool:

  • Makes important information easily accessible
  • Keeps everyone in the loop
  • Gives the manager a birds-eye view of the project

Other communication strategies include regular meetings and clear rules around which communication tools are preferred, such as Slack, email, or phone calls. 

The third reason projects fail: insufficient resources

You can’t make something out of nothing. If your team doesn’t have enough resources to work with, you can’t expect good outcomes from your project. 

‘Resources’ could mean many things: funding, raw materials, professional software, even human resources. Whatever that means for your project, all resources have one thing in common: they’re essential for the completion of your project. 

A good example would be the infamous Fyre Festival. 

The project was sold as a luxurious music festival on a remote island. But the island didn’t have the infrastructure needed to host thousands of people, nor did the festival have the time or money to construct it. 

The outcome? Possibly one of the most spectacular project failures of all time. 

How to prevent insufficient resources

If you have concerns about feasibility and insufficient resources, make sure stakeholders and management are taking them seriously. 

In particular, keep a close eye out for phrases like ‘make it work,’ or assumptions that the available resources will be adequate.

Once the project is underway, you should also closely monitor how resources are being used up, and whether you’ll need additional resources to meet key goals and objectives. 

The fourth reason projects fail: unclear goals and objectives

Clarity around what you’re trying to accomplish is critical to a successful project. It’s especially important on large projects, where many people are working together. 

This may sound like common sense. But often, the issue isn’t that projects have no goals at all, but that the ones they have aren’t sufficiently clear. 

Remove ambiguity by setting specific, tangible goals. Try following a framework like SMART goals, then breaking them down into Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

How to prevent unclear goals and objectives

Goals are only useful if everyone’s aware of them.

Get your team on the same page by sharing your project goals in a kick-off meeting. Then, follow up regularly to discuss how you’re progressing, and whether any adjustments to your goals have been made. 

The fifth reason projects fail: lack of monitoring and controls

Project management starts with a lot of groundwork, from creating a schedule to outlining a budget, and assigning tasks. 

But keeping the project on track as it actually moves forward is just as — if not more — important. Effectively monitoring progress and controlling outcomes as needed is crucial for preventing a project’s failure. 

That includes: 

  • Tracking whether the project is progressing on schedule
  • Monitoring risks and blockers impacting the project 
  • Adjusting the plan in accordance with how work actually happens

How to prevent a lack of monitoring and controlling

Look at your plan, schedule, and budget as an outline rather than a rigid plan. 

As the project progresses, continually update them so they line up with reality. Most likely, things will deviate a lot from what you’d originally planned. By recording these differences, you can account for them later in the project and keep everything on track. 

Get ahead of failure

As these tips show, preventing failure isn’t a heroic gesture, undertaken at the last second to save your project. Instead, it’s an ongoing part of your process. 

From the project’s beginning, you should prioritize realistic expectations, clear communication, and adequate resources. That way your people — and your project — are set up for success.