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Will We Ever Learn from Project Failure?
By John Lawlor

Anyone involved in IT project management will probably have had the misfortune to have been involved in or to have known a project that failed. Careers can be destroyed; recriminations fly; blame is apportioned by everyone to everyone else; relationships break down; trust is damaged, and people who were friends become strangers. That’s the human side, which is often ignored in the dynamics of projects.

On the project side, the causes of failure are fairly well known and include, in no particular order:

  • Bad project management
  • Poor budget management
  • Bad requirements
  • Inappropriate technology selection
  • Lack of clarity on expected outcomes and benefits
  • No testing or inadequate testing
  • Bad or no quality management
  • Bad or no risk management
  • Poor scope management leading to scope creep
  • Lack of change management
  • Lack of top management commitment
  • Failure to consult appropriate stakeholders
  • Bad communications
  • Poor team working
  • Inadequate resources, both people and budget
  • Resistance to change
  • Diverging objectives
  • Changes in the underlying business or wider environment
  • Poor vendor performance
  • and many more

Please don’t criticise me unduly me if I have omitted some causes, or elevated others incorrectly to the short list!! If you’d like to be more precise than me, I’m sure you can get the latest thinking on project failure from Gartner, IDC, OVUM, Forrester, Standish Group, Big 4, Government Audit (C&AG in Ireland) and many more, and I bet all of them will include some or all of what I have listed above. Study after study, and consulting assignment after consulting assignment, will regularly point to these causes of project failure.

So if organisations know the human reasons for failure; and they know the project reasons for failure, and they know the technical reasons for failure (and these are already well documented in the literature); and they continue to allow projects to fail, then my question is not, ‘Why do projects fail?’, it is this:

‘Why do organisations not learn from project failure?’

I will suggest my own answers to this question in a subsequent article; but, in the meantime, I would like to hear what you think.

What are your views on this question? What experiences have you had that might point to the inability of organisations to learn from project failure? Have you been involved in projects that you knew would fail, yet still carried on until the inevitable collapse? Why do organisations not understand or accept what is staring them plainly in the face?

John Lawlor is an IT manager and consultant and has been delivering large-scale technology and business solutions in major public and private sector organisations for over 25 years. He is the author and presenter of training courses on general management; strategic management; project management; communications skills and personal development. He speaks regularly at seminars on public sector governance; internal audit; public financial management and value for money. He also writes on technology, business and career matters. John Lawlor can be contacted through his blog, http://johnlawlor.ie/‘.

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