Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
June 21, 2022 · 13 min read

Why projects fail: 10 ways to spot project failure before it’s too late

10 ways your projects fail (and how to avoid them)

Projects fail. That’s a fact.

According to a PwC study of over 10,640 projects, only a tiny, tiny portion of companies – 2.5% to be exact – complete 100% of their projects successfully.

But what does project ‘failure’ really mean?

Project failure can refer to any number of common issues that range from minor inconveniences to full-on catastrophes. You could go over budget, miss deadlines, not hit your goals, or not meet your success criteria and definition of done.

Nearly every project you work on will face some level of ‘failure’. But it’s your job as a project manager to keep those losses to a minimum. So how do you identify the signs of project failure before they take over?

In this guide, we’ll cover the early warning signs that can tell you if your project is heading for disaster and give you a system for pushing past them on your way to success.

What does it mean for a project to ‘fail’?

Project failure is when some aspect of your defined sprint, project plan, or scope of work isn’t delivered as expected, leading to increased costs, risks, and complications.

That’s a pretty vague description. So what does project failure look like in reality? Here are a few examples:

  1. You don’t meet your objectives/measure of success (i.e., the definition of done). The success of a project comes down to more than just finishing all your tasks. Did you meet the criteria you set out to? Did you build the functionality you expected?
  2. You don’t get the results you were after. Project management isn’t just about what you build, but the results of that work. Was it a success? Did it hit your objectives? Do your customers or users love it?
  3. The work wasn’t completed on time/to budget. As project managers, we’re limited by the triple constraints. But missing deadlines and going over budget is a clear sign of failure.

Project failure not only sits on your shoulders, but it can also demoralize your team and have negative knock-on effects on the rest of your company. Especially if other teams were expecting you to finish certain milestones or hit deadlines.

Project managers use every tool at their disposal — timelines, schedules, budgets, plans – to reduce the risk of failure.

Even Agile project management was designed to mitigate the impact of ‘failure’ by breaking projects down into manageable sprints and continuously improving.

Yet it still happens. So, how can you spot project failure before it ruins your work?

10 project failure warning signs (and what to do about them)

Projects almost never fail without warning. Here are the most common signs of project failure and how to identify them before it’s too late.

1. Unclear objectives

According to CB Insights, the number one reason most companies fail is a lack of market need. If your team isn’t aligned around the right goals, you’ll be on a quick path to failure.

Project objectives are the desired results of a project. And there’s no way to truly succeed in a project if you’re not sure of your objectives and what you’re trying to achieve.

How can unclear objectives kill projects?

Let’s say you’re building a new project planner. You know you want your project planner to help people be more organized. But beyond that, you haven’t thought too much about the core objectives of the planner.

Is it meant for marketing managers? Construction project managers? Or is it meant for freelancers?

Without knowing why you’re building the project planner it’ll be impossible to hit any specific goals as you’re working on it.

Warning signs to look out for

No one can agree on an objective for your project. You might know what you want to do (create a planner that helps people organize themselves, but you don’t know why it matters and what features will help you hit your goals.

What to do about it

Start by setting better project objectives and getting team buy-in.

Project objectives can be specific deliverables and assets (like a finished piece of software) or something less tangible like ‘improving productivity’. In essence, you need to define what you want to achieve.

To make objectives crystal clear, use the SMART framework. SMART objectives are specific, measurable, time-bound, and attainable. You can learn more about setting SMART goals that get accomplished in our guide.

If your team isn’t aligned around the right goals, you’ll be on a quick path to failure.

Objectives aren’t just for planning purposes. The more your team and project stakeholders understand what you want to achieve, the more buy-in you’ll be able to get.

2. Poor communication

Teams are communicating and collaborating more than ever. But more doesn’t always equal better.

With project management tools, daily video stand-ups, team chat channels, and good old-fashioned email, people can easily get overwhelmed by all the different ways they’re meant to communicate.

How can poor communication kill projects?

Let’s say you’ve just kicked off your latest project and you can’t wait to get to work.

Hoping to make it easy for your team to stay in touch and check in on progress, you go ahead and set up a team chat, two separate project management boards, and weekly calls, briefs, and standups.

Your team tries to keep up with all the different communication tools but somehow updates are sent on the wrong platforms, email chains get buried, and project tasks don’t get updated on your project management boards.

Warning signs to look out for

Team communication is spread across too many tools – messaging, chat, project management tools, calls, and emails. When it’s hard for team members to check up on different project statuses or they have to hunt down what they need in different channels, it becomes hard work.

What to do about it

Create and share a communication plan that explains when and where updates will be communicated.

Project failure warning sign: poor communication

Your communication plan should break down:

Also, practice running effective meetings. Your team will thank you.

3. Scope creep

Scope creep is when your project’s deliverables expand without additional budget or time.

It’s so easy to say yes to everything when you’re trying to please customers or stakeholders. But saying yes too many times can cause your team to be over-extended and try to do too many tasks at once.

Scope creep is deadly as small changes to your original scope can ultimately turn into big headaches down the road.

How can scope creep kill projects?

Let’s say you’re building a bug and issue tracker for a software development agency.

As the weeks roll on and you make good progress on the initial request, your client begins to make multiple new requests. They want a mobile app along with the desktop app you scoped for. And while you technically could build these, it would add hours of work to your team’s already full schedule.

In the end, when you miss your deadline or go over budget, no one will remember that you so ‘graciously’ agreed to the extra work.

Warning signs to look out for

When project deliverables keep changing or expanding, it’s a key sign that your project might be falling victim to scope creep.

Too much ‘gold plating’ also lengthens your project timeline and increases spending. While you may want to give your client or stakeholder plenty of bang for their buck or increased value, it can get out of hand and cause scope creep.

What to do about it

Make sure to define your scope early on and stick to it.

Create a scope of work document so that everyone on the team, stakeholders, and clients know what to expect from the project.

And if your scope needs to change? Make sure to follow a change control process. That way you can more easily review and approve necessary changes before updating your workflow.

4. Unrealistic expectations

While scope creep happens after you start working, another project failure sign is setting unrealistic goals before you even start.

Setting unrealistic expectations might look like asking your team to complete tasks they’re not experienced in or being overly optimistic about how long a project will take and not budgeting enough time to complete tasks.

How can unrealistic expectations kill projects?

Let’s say you run a website design business and your latest client wants a simple redesign of their website along with SEO advice and a full content strategy.

While this is well within your team’s expertise, two members have recently quit meaning that instead of having five team members to work on the project you only have three.

Seeing as each team member has experience working on these kinds of projects, you believe that despite the staff shortage you won’t need to add any additional time. But your team struggles to keep up with the demands of the project and the workload. Your team starts falling behind on tasks and you have to report delays to your client.

Warning signs to look out for

When you start to slip behind on your work schedule it’s a sign your initial expectations were unrealistic. It could be that you didn’t account for time off or other projects. Or maybe, you’re simply trying to achieve too much in too little time.

What to do about it

Spend extra time moving from goals to day-to-day tasks.

Sometimes when you switch from goal planning to task management, there are just too many tasks that need to be broken down. It can be easy to focus on the larger and vague project goals instead of focusing on the finer details of each task and how long each will realistically take your team.

Instead, take time to build out an Agile board or Gantt chart that clearly shows every task. Then, ask yourself: is this realistic?

For example, Planio gives you multiple options for viewing all of your tasks, such as an issue list, Agile board, Gantt chart, or calendar.

Agile board

Finally, it’s also important to think about the types of goals you’re setting. Do you have the expectation of hitting 100% of your goals or is 70% considered a success? Try to set realistic goals - that way it’s not frustrating or disheartening if they only achieve 70%.

And remember, succeeding 100% of the time can be a problem too. It could mean you’re not setting ambitious-enough goals.

5. Lack of project visibility

If no one knows where to find important documentation or who’s doing what, it can lead to failure. Even if your project is really well planned out, a lack of visibility makes it harder for people to stay on track and know what they need to do.

How can a lack of visibility kill projects?

Even though you only kicked off your website redesign project last week, your team members keep asking you basic questions about how they can log into the CMS and which SEO audit software they should use.

While you are quick to reply to these messages, a few minutes here and there drastically slows your day and prevents you from dealing with other more complex requests.

The problem is that no one on your team knows where they can find these basic details. Even though they have full access to your project management board and shared files these minor details aren’t easy to find.

Warning signs to look out for

If your team members keep asking about basic information it’s a clear sign these details aren’t easily accessible or visible.

If certain work tasks are being ‘doubled’ it’s another sign that there’s not enough visibility around the project workflow and who’s doing what.

What to do about it

Keep all project tasks, files, code repositories, and assets in one central place, like your project management tool.

For example, Planio brings together everything you need to successfully run a project in one place, including:

6. Ignoring customer insights

Building the wrong product is one of the easiest paths to project failure.

But how do you know for sure what to build? Your customer will tell you what they want. Yet, lots of leaders still think they know better.

How can ignoring your customers kill projects?

Picture this: You’ve run tons of user interviews and done weeks of research to discover that your customers want more filters in your search bar. Yet, a senior executive thinks those filters make the product look ‘too messy.’

Instead of pushing back, you build a streamlined search bar. And your users hate it. But who’s to blame? (Spoiler alert: It’s you).

Warning signs to look out for

Sometimes it’s too easy to get caught up in creative ideas and ignore customer insights. If you’re following the Agile Methodology, another warning sign is that your team skips the customer feedback/learning stage of Agile.

What to do about it

Make customer insights a key part of your sprint retrospectives. Always ask ‘what does this do for the user?’ If you don’t know, carry out user interviews.

Prioritizing customer feedback is the best way of ensuring your project takes their feedback into account and will ultimately be something they’re happy with.

7. Not planning resources properly

Project managers plan. It’s easy to plan your project timeline, meetings, and team structure. But in the middle of all of this planning, it’s easy to neglect planning the most important part of all –– your resources.

If you’re not careful, your plans might not match up with your available resources. Or, you don’t have a contingency plan for if resources need to shift to other projects.

How can poor resource planning kill a project?

This one’s easy. If you don’t have the time, budget, or skills to complete a project, it’s going to fail.

Warning signs to look out for

If you have no ‘wiggle room’ for if resources change it’s a clear sign that you haven’t accounted for potential shortfalls or over-budgeting.

If you’re often in the position of needing to fight for more resources as your project progresses this only highlights that there wasn’t an accurate resource plan in the beginning.

What to do about it

Make resources a part of your planning and risk management process.

When planning resources, ask yourself questions about what human resources are required, what software you might need, facilities that are available, and any knowledge resources you require.

8. Roadblocks and other scheduling issues

A project schedule is essential for ensuring you have enough time and resources to hit your objectives. But a schedule is just a guess. In almost every case, you’ll end up getting stuck waiting for other work to be completed or have another roadblock knock you off schedule.

A few short delays quickly add up.

How can scheduling issues kill projects?

Let’s say you’re building a new website. But in order to finish up, you need copy and final designs. Unfortunately, both the copywriter and designer got pulled onto an ‘urgent’ project. This means you can’t send the website through to proofing and you’ll be late with client delivery.

Warning signs to look out for

Missing deadlines is a key red flag of scheduling issues and roadblocks.

If your team is constantly blowing past your estimated time on tasks it’s another sign of a scheduling issue.

What to do about it

Start by completing and sticking to your project schedule. Learn from previous mistakes and aim to provide better time frame estimations.

9. Ambiguity and uncertainty at critical milestones

Large projects need to be broken down into milestones. But you need to know what happens at each of these critical junctures– which questions to ask, how to adapt your plan, and when to go back to the drawing board.

How can ambiguity at milestones kill projects?

Let’s say you’re building an app. Your first milestone is to get an MVP built. But once it’s done, no one knows what to prioritize next. Should you launch it and learn from users? Build out some key features? Focus on the UX?

Before you know it, your team is split in a million different directions and no one is making progress.

Warning signs to look out for

If you’re blindly following plans you made before starting work it’s easy to fall into the trap of not knowing what to do next.

While change is expected sometimes, too much change can frustrate your team. So if you receive plenty of push-back from your team when projects change it’s a sign there’s too much ambiguity and uncertainty.

What to do about it

Run regular one-on-ones and use OKRs to help team members understand what’s expected of them and how their work impacts the larger company goals.

You can also try running a lessons learned session at critical milestones. This way, your team has a chance to reflect before getting lost in the next big chunk of work.

10. Losing steam

When other project failure red flags come up, it can be demoralizing. And your team losing motivation only adds to the chances that your project will fail.

While your team might have been full of enthusiasm and motivation at the start of the project, a few too many setbacks and delays might cause them to run out of steam.

How can losing steam kill projects?

Project management is about people as much as plans and processes. If your workforce is overworked, uninterested, or frustrated, they’ll be less likely to hit critical milestones.

Warning signs to look out for

A lack of motivation is often a symptom of a larger disease. If your team can’t connect their work to the bigger picture and are losing sight of wider goals, they’re bound to lose interest in their work.

What to do about it

Be a team motivator. Remember, project management is as much about people as projects. You need to help each individual team member understand the value of what they’re doing and feel that it’s worthwhile.

Celebrate each milestone and give your team encouragement and praise.

How to set up a project failure early warning system in 3 steps

Project failure can come at any time. But with a bit of due diligence, you can set yourself up to recognize the signs before it’s too late.

Here’s how to set up an ‘early warning system’ for project failure:

How to set up a project failure early warning system in 3 steps

1. Start with your planning process

It all starts with a solid planning process. Your project might be falling down as a result of poorly laid out management boards, the wrong tools, or simply poor execution.

Vet your planning process from start to finish and think about where you might be going wrong. Think about how to manage a project in a way that works for your team members, clients, and stakeholders.

2. Use a project management tool for added visibility

If the problem is a communication gap, make sure you’ve set up an intuitive project management tool like Planio to help your team know exactly what’s needed and when it’s expected.

Gantt chart showing full visibility of the full project timeline

Using a project management tool is a great way of making sure your team is on the same page and has full visibility of the full project timeline.

3. Regularly check in with your team

Your team members are the driving force behind your projects, so it’s important that they’re feeling good about their work for the project.

Make sure to meet with team members both individually and as part of a group to find out what they’re struggling with, what they’re enjoying, and where they could do with some additional support.

Focusing on team motivation will help keep your projects moving and prevent things from grinding to a halt.

No one likes talking about project failure. But it’s normal.

How to talk to leaders, executives, and clients about failure

No one likes talking about failure. But it’s normal. Remember, missing goals is often just a sign that you’re pushing your team. Also, you are not your project. Don’t equate your own self-image with the outcome of a project.

When you do have to talk about failure, follow these steps:

  1. Be direct: Being upfront and telling the truth will help win you respect with executives. There’s no point trying to shy away from the reality of the project, so face up to it and own it.
  2. Focus on the good news: Even though things didn’t go to plan it’s important to be upbeat and positive about the project. Avoid going into the meeting down and deflated. Instead, think about how you can own any mistakes and be optimistic about the future.
  3. Separate the idea from the execution: Failure could be a result of the execution. But it could also be because the idea wasn’t right. It’s important to separate the two items from one another so you can home in on what went wrong. Maybe the idea was good but the execution didn’t play out as well as you hoped or vice versa.
  4. Describe the sequence of events: Go into detail about each section of the project and each event and task. Consider providing a concise visual timeline to help listeners get their bearings.
  5. Have a plan for the next steps: It’s essential to show that you’ve learned from any mistakes and that you’ve thoroughly thought about some recommendations to make improvements for next time. Look at everything you and the team have learned and how you can turn failure into an opportunity for the next time around.

Remember, project failure is part of the job

Project failure is often out of your control. Even if you’ve done everything right, an idea might flop once it’s in the hands of your users. But this is an important part of learning and growing.

The important thing is to use failure as a lesson and an opportunity for growth. That way, the next time you’re in a similar situation you can apply these lessons and boost your chance of success.

The key to project success is to use the right tools and processes. When you implement a solid project management process and tool you’ll be much more likely to succeed as a team.

Ready to manage more successful projects? Sign up for Planio today!