Projects fail for several reasons and those reasons often vary depending on who you ask. My own opinion, you can track back just about every single failure reason to issues with planning or issues with communication; sometimes both. That is, of course, assuming you have adequate support from your organization.
From the Project Management Institute, there are seven causes to project failure (Discenza, R. & Forman, J. B., 2007):
- Too much focus on business value, not enough on the technical detail
- Failure to establish clear accountability for measured results
- Lack of consistent processes for managing unambiguous checkpoints
- Lack of consistent methodology for planning and executing projects
- Failure to include the customer at the beginning of the project and throughout the entire project as the project evolves
- Failure to manage and motivate people so that project efforts will experience a zone of optimal performance throughout its life
- Failure to provide project team members with the tools and techniques they need to produce successful projects
I think just about every single one of those points can fall under either a failure with planning or a failure with communication. See the PMI article to learn more: Seven Causes of Project Failure.
From Projectmanagement.com they provide a list of 10 reasons why projects fail (Stewart, Jim, 2018):
- Scope Creep
- Overallocated Resources
- Poor Communications
- Bad Stakeholder Management
- Unreliable Estimates
- No Risk Management
- Unsupported Project Culture
- The Accidental Project Manager
- Lack of Team Planning Sessions
- Monitoring and Controlling
8 out of 10 of these are a result of poor planning and/or communication. Number 7 “Unsupported Project Culture” and number 8 “The Accidental Project Manager” are more the result of a lack of support from the organization.
I think you can have a bad project manager and still have a successful project, I’ve worked on a few project teams with bad project managers before. One thing with Agile and the focus on the team making many decisions and doing what is best, it helps to mitigate some of the effects of a bad project manager.
Communication and Planning
An explainer video I created back in 2017.
Projects can fail because there is a failure to align the projects properly to what is actually needed to complete the project. You’re so focused on deriving business value now, you fail to see how spending a bit more time or money can help you out in the long run. You take shortcuts to save time, cutting out parts of the planning (*Adopting Agile approaches doesn’t mean no planning, many report that Agile actually creates more planning which helps to lead to success); or you reject good practices in favor of saving money now in the short term. You use short-term thinking to plan for long-term projects.
Projects can also fail when you haven’t established a view of how the project is going to work or what it is going to look like when it is done. What is going to make this project a success? How would you know if it was successful? We can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy, but we can explain what we hope to achieve when we do something. When we fail to do that, it marks a planning failure.
When it comes to communication, you are likely creating something for someone else. Bringing them in to collaborate on what the project should look like makes sense. Within most Agile frameworks, this customer involvement is heavily stressed and expected throughout the project. The idea here is that the customer should know what they want and when they see things not going in a direction they intended, they can catch it and help guide you back on the proper path.
You probably are also relying on other people to help you that exist outside of your project. This may border on an organizational support issue, but I have encountered scenarios where people just didn’t come to meetings, they didn’t provide the information you needed, and they dodged your repeated requests for assistance. In those scenarios you are lacking needed communication and if it continues you are either lacking the communication needed to escalate or lacking the support needed to get the project moving. It may be that your project is not of a high enough priority to get that support, but that hinders a project’s progress and could lead to a failure.
Along with this is a failure to adequately communicate what you need and a failure to communicate why you need it. It could also be a failure to realize how important it is to the success of the project, and that may take some additional planning or more effective communication.
It rarely seems like you can identify just one clear reason why a project fails. We can point to an incident, assign blame, but it is often more complex than that. You might have scope creep, but why do you have scope creep. Who let it happen, and why did they let it happen? Projects take a team larger than the project team to be successful, and they take a team larger than the project team to be failures.
One purpose of Agile is to look at ways you can improve. Even when the communication or planning failure isn’t yours, you should still inspect and still look into ways for you to improve. You can only fix yourself and what you do. The only person you have control over is you. While the failure may not be yours, treat it as your failure when you look for ways to improve.
Discenza, R. & Forman, J. B. (2007). Seven causes of project failure: how to recognize them and how to initiate project recovery. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2007—North America, Atlanta, GA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. (Retrieved from https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/seven-causes-project-failure-initiate-recovery-7195)
Stewart, Jim (2018). Top 10 Reasons Why Projects Fail. Retrieved from https://project-management.com/top-10-reasons-why-projects-fail/