7 Signs Your Project is Bound to Fail

And how to rescue it before it's too late

illustration of sad desk project failure

If project success rates were a movie, they’d be a horror film. Numerous studies across industries have put the numbers at well below 50 percent. But why do so many projects fail?

Projects break down for a number of reasons. Poor planning, overambitious deadlines, weak leadership, difficult clients—you may have experienced all of the above. We all know hindsight is 20/20. The challenge is to catch mistakes in your project before the damage is done.

In this article, we’ll name the most common causes of project failure and offer solutions to fix them in the moment. By learning about these issues now, you can take preventive action in your next project.

The sources of project failure

As project manager, you’re responsible for your team’s success—and you may be tempted to take full credit for failures. But your whole team needs to be able to learn from failure and get better. To learn from mistakes, you need to look at failure where it happens and find targeted solutions for each problem.

Project failure can be broken down into three types, which occur at different stages along the project timeline:
Diagram of the 3 Types of Project Failure along a Timeline

  • First, there are planning failures, which occur in the early stages of setting up a project, creating the project plan, and kicking off first tasks. Evidence of these issues may not show up until later.
  • As the project progresses, you may see day-to-day breakdown in function and cooperation within your team. These are operations failures.
  • Finally, there may be issues with how your team views leadership when it comes to important decisions. These are management failures.

By understanding where and why these issues occur, you can provide better solutions for your team and get your project back on track. Let’s look at each of these issues and explore some possible solutions in the context of a creative agency developing assets for a client.

Planning failures

As the saying goes, “fail to plan, plan to fail.” Planning failures happen before a project begins, even though the results don’t appear till later. Planning failures can be avoided with a better project plan and changes to your planning techniques and tools.

You don’t recognize your project plan

Let’s say you’re working with a new client on a social media campaign. At the beginning, you want to make a good impression, so you create a project plan that gets approved by the client. Then you set up project management software to track your progress. So far, so good.

The problem is, three weeks in, the tasks you’ve tracked online don’t look anything like the ones outlined in your project plan.

If your team has strayed far from the original work you set out to do, chances are you’re going to end up with a different result. Even if the result is a better one, changes need to be communicated to stakeholders first.

Our advice: To avoid this problem, use a visual model of your project, such as a Gantt chart or a Critical Path diagram, that tracks dependencies. Dependencies are checks against unplanned changes, since changes to one task affect all subsequent tasks. The visual model makes it easier for our brains to understand workflow and thus the consequences of straying from the path.

If it’s too late, then arrange a meeting or send a memo to stakeholders, immediately articulating the changes and asking for approval.

You’ve used all your buffer time

Buffer time is insurance against missing the final deadline—it makes room for inevitable delays and allows your team to check their work at the end. Like any other resource, buffer time is limited. If your team is halfway through a project and you’ve collectively used all the buffer time, you’re going to be late.

Our advice: Trim your task list to only the essential parts needed to meet your goal as defined in the project plan. In product development, this is known as the MVP, or minimum viable product. If a task does not directly serve the MVP, cut it.

A Gantt chart is particularly useful for understanding where time goes. In Redbooth, overdue tasks appear in red, letting you know that you need to tend to these items first.

If you’re already overdue, survey employees anonymously to ask what’s preventing them from getting stuff done on time. Implement the feedback in your next project.

You’re overbudget

Resources are limited for projects for good reason. If a client project is not profitable in terms of income vs. spend, it won’t be worth taking on from an accounting perspective. When you overspend during a project, the company will have to compensate for the mistake.

Our advice: Conduct a project audit. A project audit uncovers any challenges, financial and otherwise, that affect the outcome of the project. Audits can be done at any point, such as halfway through, or at the end as a project postmortem. Conduct an audit by gathering all documentation relevant to the project and interviewing everyone involved, from team members to service vendors to clients to executives.

In the project-planning phase, divide budget by task lists and deliverables so you can see how accurate your budget predictions are and whether you’re allocating resources correctly.

Operations failures

Operations failures occur while the project is already under way, and they are a failure of day-to-day task completion and team coordination. To combat operations failures, you need to make sure everyone is on the same page about assignments and deadlines.

Your documentation is going out of date

So you’ve set up to-do lists in your project management software, but people rarely check in to deliver their daily stand-up or update their tasks. In fact, most people see documentation as a time suck that creates extra work.

When your project management software becomes a hindrance to productivity, you have a big problem.

Our advice: Make your project management software indispensable. Try to rely on contextual communication in your project management app. When team members reach out to you with requested changes or questions, refer them to the software. No action should be taken without being recorded.

If people are unsure of expectations, set documentation guidelines for your team. These guidelines should be tied to specific actions. For example, direct reports need to ping their managers with a message when they complete a task, or managers need to reach out to clients when a task list is complete.

Your team is not communicating

When you rarely hear from people, don’t assume everything is going well. You may think of the project plan as self-explanatory and only check in with your team for infrequent meetings, but this hands-off approach can backfire. When teams don’t communicate well, people are not alerted to important updates; important feedback is delayed; and, ultimately, more meetings are required to fix everything.

The work of communication doesn’t start and end with management tools and a project plan. You have to actively cultivate channels of communication.

Our advice: Set up a limited number of communication channels for your project team—your project management tool and a chat app such as Slack, for example. Try implementing a virtual daily stand-up visible to everyone. This will keep team members in the loop on what everyone’s working on and how tasks are progressing. You can also go through task lists and start conversations around specific tasks. These casual questions will let people know that you’re monitoring progress and care about individual goals.

Management failures

As a manager, you are responsible for important decision-making, but you don’t need to manage everything. When the project management function breaks down, employees are left without good direction, and managers are distracted from their main responsibilities.

Team members keep asking the same questions

“How do I deliver X asset to the client?” “I’ve created a new asset. Who do I notify?” “We’re bringing in a contractor. How do I give him access to everything?”

In this case, work is happening, but slowly—people are asking colleagues for advice on what to do and reinventing the wheel with processes. Basically, everyone is unsure of their next steps.

If the same questions appear again and again, you haven’t come up with a solid strategy for solving common issues and equipping people to tackle more complex problems.

Our advice: Start a knowledge base of all project processes for your company. You can create docs as task lists within your project management tool or use a knowledge management tool, such as Tettra. Though it takes some effort at first, a knowledge base will answer team FAQs and provide a resource to new members. Addressing questions strategically makes it easier to create consistent results and makes it easier to scale your team.

You’ve made yourself a bottleneck

When every project action needs your approval, you have a bottleneck. You may also have incessant notification pings, a stuffed inbox, and a headache. This is classic micromanagement.

As project manager, you’re ultimately responsible for the success of a project and all of its components. But if everyone is coming to you with problems, comments, and questions, you haven’t set up a self-sufficient team. When employees expect you to signal when it’s time to move to the next stage of the pipeline, you become both a crutch and a roadblock. But it’s not their fault. People generally don’t take responsibility for things without being asked.

Our advice: Give each task or task list an owner who has the final say on those assets. Each team member should own some part of the project, no matter how small. They are responsible for delivery (including, where necessary, external communication with a client or stakeholder) and if they don’t deliver on time, they will have to provide an explanation in a follow-up with you. By giving yourself a reactive rather than proactive role in delivery, you can keep an eye on productivity while removing friction from your project engine.

Rescuing your project from failure

If you think your project is in trouble, don’t panic and try to cover your tracks. Own up to mistakes, and provide a clear plan for turning things around. Use this guide as a starting point for better problem-solving. If you address these problems as soon as you see them, you can restore faith in your leadership and produce results quickly and effectively.