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Identifying the warning signs of project failure

Whitepaper Author
January 27, 2016

More than three decades ago Harvard Business School proposed four key reasons for project failure:

  1. Unclear objectives leading to inadequate scope definition and the consequential underestimation of time, cost and risk.
  2. Wrong leadership from the sponsor down, leading to poor decision making, inadequate skills in the team and a failure to invest in team formation.
  3. Poor or no planning leading to unrealistic timescales and ineffective controls.
  4. Poor communications and a lack of stakeholder consultation/management.

Not much has changed in the intervening years—projects still fail for much the same reason, writes Jacob Silver in his paper ‘Reflection on project reform’. He believes organisations have now shifted their focus from the causes of project failure to identifying warning signs and developing response mechanisms.

“It’s imperative that as project managers we put in place tools to recognise the early warning signs of project failure and implement strong processes to reform projects that are on the path to failure,” he urges.

Silver’s paper traces the effect of this shift in focus by examining the process of change in a large and complex relocation project. This case study demonstrates all the hallmarks of the early stages of project failure as well as subsequent failed attempts at change before recounting the process that eventually got the project back on track and allowed the team to achieve immediate and ongoing success.

The author outlines a number of tools used to improve success, including critical reflections, the discovery of common themes through the use of affinity diagrams and the use of personality traits to assign roles. When team members shared key lessons learnt, it allowed the team to continue its success, ultimately restoring the faith of the project client, which secured future business.

For more details, click to access Jacob Silver’s ‘Reflection on project reform‘ as a PDF.

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