How executives can bring project failure upon their projects


One of the privileges of being a project management consultant is getting a chance to help on, support, and assess more projects than the average person.  What does not cease to amaze many consultants is how surprised stakeholders are when projects fail, even though failure signs almost hit them in the face.

Project success cannot be guaranteed.  To the contrary: a key characteristic of project work is uncertainty and how elusive success can be.  Nonetheless, in many of the failure projects, failure is not only imminent, but could have been seen coming from a mile away.

Project failure is predictable, and when brought up to stakeholders’ attention many still do not take warnings seriously.  Not because warnings do not make sense, but more because what is being asked to prevent failure is tough for managers.  Just like when a dietitian warns someone to lose weight.  It is not that his warnings do not make sense, but dieting for many people is hard.

It is so ironic that the main reason for project failure is the project stakeholders themselves who are careful not to fail the project: Executives and upper management.  There are so many examples out there of how this happens in so many organizations wordwide.

One of the common ways some executives mess up their projects is when zealous executives do not trust their team members to get the job done.  They do not believe that the team wants success enough or as much as they do, so they get involved in micro details that they have no business getting into.  This frustrates team members and they start getting disengaged from the project and become just hands following directions from the executives on sensitive technical details.  This is a sure recipe for project failure, still so many do it, so many do not notice themselves doing it, and when projects fail, they will still blame it on the team and never see the problem as theirs, and off they go again to ruin the next project.

Another common way is when some executives assume they can just “buy” the talent they need, put them all in a room, and they will “cook” up a successful product and hence project success.  What executives miss is the need for team synergy and level of orchestration required from a skillful project manager to attain value sought from the project. So, they try to manage the team themselves, or ignore managing the team altogether, or bring in a weak project manager.  The result is a bunch of estranged experts who know they are capable of excellence, but still unable to see it collectively achieved by the team.

Some executives speak from both sides of their mouth.  They assure the project manager that they will stop at no cost to ensure project success, especially strategically critical projects.   Yet they do not put their actions and money where their mouths are.  So, they start trying to save money in the wrong places and start cutting into the “lean meat” of the project instead of cutting the fat.  So, they would cut on important preparation and planning to “save” time and money.  Unfortunately by doing so, they are throwing the baby with the bath water, so to speak.

One can go on, but one more example might suffice.  It is in a way funny but sad in so many ways. Some executives assume that instilling fear, pressure, and even panic into the hearts of their teams will result in the team members becoming more careful and putting more effort into getting the job done.  What happens in reality is that people get detached, scared, and prefer to do as little as possible so they do not make mistakes.  Then everyone becomes a political person instead of a technical expert and tries to throw the work and blame on others because they are so scared to be blamed for project failure.  It is like breathing down the neck of a surgeon taking on a heart surgery, threatening him with consequences if the surgery is not successful.

Keys to project success include trust in your team, respect and win-win attitude, a professional project manager, rigorous and iterative planning, clarity, and integrity.  Executives are in best position to assure such an environment.

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