Project failure happens, but it’s often avoidable. While a 100% success rate isn’t realistic (or even ideal), it’s important to be aware of common project pitfalls in order to give your work the best chance of success. In this article we describe seven common reasons why projects fail, and how to prevent them—plus some useful tools to keep you on track.
Most project managers have experienced the sting of a failed project. In fact, respondents in a 2021 Project Management Institute survey reported that 12% of projects in their organization were deemed failures in the past year. But while you’re not alone in wanting to prevent project failure, just reading this article means you’ve already taken an important step. So here’s to planning in advance, and stopping these common project pitfalls in their tracks.
A project could be considered a failure for the following reasons:
The project didn’t meet your objectives.
You didn’t get the deliverable you wanted.
Work wasn’t completed on time.
Failure is subjective, however. Oftentimes, “failed” projects still achieve significant results, even if you missed a deadline or didn’t hit a deliverable. And while failure never feels good, it often comes hand-in-hand with setting challenging goals.
For example, here at Asana we believe that if you succeed 100% of the time, you likely weren’t ambitious enough in your planning. That said, it’s important to make sure projects fail for the right reasons—like setting a stretch goal to inspire forward momentum—rather than due to an avoidable pitfall.
Thankfully, these common problems are solvable—so with some advance planning, you can stop failure in its tracks.
Problem: Your team isn’t aligned on project goals, and there’s no way to measure success.
Project objectives are the things you plan to achieve by the end of your project. They should be specific, time-bound goals you can measure when your project is finished. Without clear objectives, it’s hard to keep your team aligned or even know if your project was a success or a failure.
For example, imagine your team is designing a new checkout page for your mobile app. Without a clear objective (such as “reduce average checkout time for end users by 30% in Q2"), it’s hard to know which new features will make the page a success. And after the project is over, you’ll be hard-pressed to measure performance without a concrete goal to compare with.
Unclear objectives are a common problem. The 2021 Anatomy of Work Index, which surveyed over 10,000 knowledge workers, found that less than half of all employees understood how their day-to-day work contributed to broader goals.
Solution: Set clear objectives as part of your planning process.
Effective project objectives align your team and provide a benchmark to measure success. Set objectives before you begin and they can guide your project—even better, involve your team in the goal-setting process, and you can ensure everyone is aligned from the start.
It’s a good idea to set objectives as part of your overall project plan, which also lays out project stakeholders, deliverables, timeline, and more.Read: How to write an effective project objective, with examples
Problem: Your project deliverables change as work progresses.
Scope creep is hard to spot because it often comes on slowly—you could even say it creeps up on you. It’s what happens when project deliverables exceed the project scope, and you end up with more work than you bargained for.
For example, imagine you planned to publish 10 blog articles this month as part of a new product launch. However, you got a request from a stakeholder to add two additional posts to support a different product. With that new ask, your resources are stretched thin and you need to delay publishing deadlines across the board.
Scope creep is a major driver of missed deadlines and failed projects. In fact, respondents in a 2021 Project Management Institute survey reported that 34% of projects in their organization experienced scope creep in the past year.
Solution: Define—and circulate—your project scope before you begin.
When you define scope in advance, it’s easier to deliver results on time and within budget. You can plan resourcing ahead of time, and make sure last-minute asks don’t overwhelm your team. A documented project scope is also a good tool to push back on extra requests from stakeholders. In the example above, that means sticking to your original 10 blog posts and delivering your project on time.
You can document your project scope with a scope statement. This can be part of your project plan, or even its own standalone document. Once you create your scope statement, make sure to share it with your stakeholders. When they have a clear understanding of what is and isn’t included in your project, they’ll be less likely to tack on additional asks. And when you do get an extra request, you can use a change control process to determine if it’s important enough to add to your project scope.Read: The quick guide to defining project scope—in 8 steps
Problem: Success isn’t attainable.
Inspiring goals can help spur forward momentum, but they should still be attainable. If your project objectives are too ambitious, stressed teammates and missed deadlines can easily ensue.
For example, imagine your sales team has a stretch goal of 100 commissions this month. But two team members are on PTO, so the rest of the team will need to work overtime to achieve the goal. That means there aren’t enough resources to achieve the objective, and success is likely out of reach.
Overly ambitious objectives can be kryptonite for project timelines. According to the 2021 Anatomy of Work Index, the most common cause of missed deadlines is unrealistic expectations.
Solution: Set SMART project objectives.
With some advance planning, you can still set inspiring objectives that don’t require extra hours on the clock. To create ambitious (but achievable) goals, make sure they’re SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. The SMART goals methodology makes it clear what success looks like, while also providing a clear project roadmap and finish line for your project. If you make sure your objectives are attainable and within your project scope, you can mitigate project risk and set your team up for success.Read: Write better SMART goals with these tips and examples
Problem: You don’t have the resources you need to get the job done.
Resources are anything you need to complete a project—like budget, staff, time, space, or tools. A lack of resources can delay a project or even stop it in its tracks.
For example, imagine you’re working on an ad campaign for a new product. The deadline is approaching, but your budget for freelance video editing has run dry. With only one in-house editor to help, you need to delay the campaign’s launch. In this case, you’ve run out of both the budget and manpower you need to deliver work on time.
Solution: Make a resource management plan in advance.
Sometimes unplanned events like budget cuts are hard to predict. But often with a bit of planning, you can ensure your team has what they need to tackle project goals. A resource management plan lays out the amount and type of resources you need for your project—so you know exactly what’s required before you get started. Then, use resource allocation best practices to identify exactly when each resource should be allocated to each project. For example, this can include employee bandwidth, budget, tech equipment, or even a workspace.Read: Your guide to getting started with resource management
Problem: Team members don’t understand how and when to communicate updates.
Nowadays, communication is more complex than ever. According to the 2021 Anatomy of Work Index, on average people switch between 10 apps 25 times per day to do their work, and 27% of workers say that actions and messages are missed when switching apps.
With today’s app overload, it’s hard to know when and where you should surface important project updates. That means work may be at risk if project team members aren’t aligned on what communication channels to use, when to use them, or who should communicate what.
For example, imagine you lead a remote team spread across North America and Europe. You rely on a mix of communication tools to get things done, including email, message, video conferencing, and shared docs. But your team doesn’t have documentation about when to use each channel—so team members often share important updates in channels that only some people see. As a result, you’re missing important details and work is often duplicated.
Solution: Create—and share—a communication plan.
A clear communication plan lays out how you’ll pass along important, ongoing project info. It gives your team clarity on which tools to use for what, lays out how frequently updates will be shared (and who should share them), and identifies when to loop in key stakeholders. With a solid communication plan, you can spend less time chasing info and more time tackling your project objectives.
A communication plan typically includes the frequency, channel, audience, and owner for each type of communication you’ll be using. For example, you might include these details for weekly project status updates:
Communication type: project status updates
Audience: project team
Owner: project manager
Problem: Missed deadlines cause rushed work and significant project delays.
A missed deadline here, a delayed meeting there—this may seem inconsequential in the moment, but can ultimately snowball into rushed work, stressed teammates, and significant project delays.
For example, picture this: you’re planning a museum exhibit, and your logistics meeting with the exhibit venue has been pushed back a few times. Now there’s two weeks until the grand opening, and your team will need to speed through the planning process in order to be ready on time—or you may even need to delay the event. Scheduling delays like this are increasingly common, with 26% of deadlines missed each week according to the 2021 Anatomy of Work Index.
Solution: Include a project schedule as part of your project plan.
Remember the ever-useful project plan we mentioned earlier? This typically includes a detailed project schedule. A project schedule lays out each step you need to complete, who’s responsible for that work, and when each task is due.
An effective project schedule gives your team clarity on how pieces connect together. That way, you can easily identify which key milestones are dependent on others—so you can work backward from due dates to ensure there’s enough time to complete each step. You can also include your team in the scheduling process to account for everyone’s timeline and responsibilities.Read: How to create project schedules to make work easier
Problem: Team members can’t find important project documentation.
So you’ve crafted a killer project plan complete with a project schedule, communication plan, resource management plan, and SMART objectives. Now what?
If those documents are static and not easily accessible to your team, it can be hard to communicate updates without time-consuming status meetings. And even so, information might get lost in the mix.
Solution: Use a work management tool to house project info in one place.
Work management helps you organize workflows and set up processes so your team can collaborate long-term. The right work management tool can act as a single source of truth for project information, documentation, and status. We’re (obviously) partial to Asana, because it gives teams a living system where everyone can view and manage work and team priorities in a way that works best for them. But regardless of the tool you use, project management software allows your team to access the information they need and stay up-to-date with the latest project updates. That means you can ditch Excel trackers that quickly become outdated, and make sure your project team has real-time information whenever they need it.
Now that you’re aware of these common reasons for project failure, here are some tools to set your projects up for success:
A project charter to pitch your project to stakeholders.
A project plan to keep work on track. This includes:
Goals and project objectives
Scope and budget
A resource management plan to manage your team’s workload.
A risk register to identify potential setbacks.
A project kickoff meeting to align on key details and gain stakeholder buy-in.
A project management tool to coordinate it all.
You’ve probably picked up on a theme here—when it comes to risk management and avoiding project failure, advance planning is key. By empowering your team to plan strategically and account for all your project’s moving pieces, you can set a track record of success and crush key objectives. So here’s to planning ahead, and many successful projects to come.Try project planning in Asana