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Why Projects Fail


There are three primary categories of project failure or delay. The first objective of turning around a failing/delayed project is to identify causes. Once causes are understood potential remedies can be planned and implemented. Below is an outline of typical causes and/or symptoms of failure or delay.

Technical Development

There are many reasons for failure/delay in technical development whether hardware, software or service products.

a. Has the value proposition been identified?

i. You can’t design a product or process without a firm definition of what marketing has determined as the customer need and how the organization will satisfy this need. Fundamental.

b. Has product usage been identified? Sounds obvious but can be difficult in specialized niches or a new use for an existing product.

c. Poor customer definition.

i. Who’s the customer/user…the nurse, doctor, patient, purchasing, housekeeping, or other?

Hint 1: Everyone from the purchasing agent to housekeeping (disposal) is a customer/user. Does it meet their needs? If a hospital incinerates its trash can the materials be burned?
Anyone and everyone who touches or has to experience the product is a customer/user. And yes, unit and shipping packaging is part of the product. I’ve witnessed a medical disposable product launch get off to a very slow start because of product presentation (the method used to package). Current products on the market were presented on rolls for use where multiple units could be hung on an IV pole by the bedside for nurse’s use and convenience. This new product delivered individual units in a box. The box had to have a home in a drawer or on a shelf which was not always bedside. The product itself was a winner but acceptance slow due to expediency. BTW, the company made a change to rolls. This took several months with changes to parts, tooling, sterilization validations, and production.

Hint 2: Make a value stream process map on one axis showing the who, what, and where of the potential product flow from mfg. to hospital (vs. home vs. outpatient center vs. ?) through to disposal (trash vs. incinerator). On the other axis show/describe customer/user process flow for each user and location from diagnosis to therapy or want/need to supply. The axis should cross where customer/user meets product/service.

ii. Has the customer/user been formally defined?

Even if one of the users is the Doctor, has the type of Doctor been identified? The needs of an OB/GYN vs. a General Practice vs. a Nurse Practitioner are all different. Where are they located? Answers to these questions drive product requirements.

d. What is the product?

Is it hardware, software, service, combination, other?

e. Poor product definition

i. Without a. above being defined this cannot be done.

ii. Does marketing keep changing their mind as to features/benefits?

f. Poor product/customer requirements definition.

Need to answer who, what, and where in order to identify requirements.

g. Poor Engineering Requirements (ER) definition.

i. ERs must first be translated from product/customer requirements to ERs.

ii. ERs must be defined in a manner that can be measured or verified (NOT-Is this red enough?).

iii. Can you prove the product meets the requirements via facts (objective) as opposed to opinion (subjective)?

1. “Easy to carry” is not measurable and is a matter of opinion.

2. Product must weigh less than 10 lbs. is measurable and is a fact.

h. R&D not focusing on developing one ER at a time.

Several ERs are developed simultaneously thereby confounding the measurements necessary to determine which of the outputs meet the ER. This is particularly true when ER’s are at the opposite ends of the engineering spectrum, e.g. “Must be strong” vs. “Must be light” Q: How strong is strong? Requires defining tensile, cross section, etc. Q: How light is light? Requires weight definition. R&D needs to determine output individually or understand how the ERs relate.

i. Not understanding Key Input Variables (KIV) that drive ER output.

In systems there may be many KIVs that drive desired output. Most teams stop looking after they find 3-4 KIVs. Typically the other ones are found during launch when production variability via materials, process, and labor, are forced into the system. This may result in product slowdowns if product does not meet specifications or a recall if product makes it to market.
True story: I know of a medical disposable that had a designated activation force (ER). This device was made of several pieces of which two were rubber. One KIV to the system was the hardness of the rubber (durometer) for these two components. The company never measured durometer of this key component during production. Company received lots of rubber components that were too hard (high durometer). Product made it to market. Customers complained of high activation force. Company instituted a voluntary recall. Very costly in terms of dollars spent/lost and customer satisfaction!

Project Management

a. Time/Schedule

i. Forced upon team by executive management regardless of scope/costs

ii. No/Poor planning

iii. No schedule integration

iv. Death by a thousand cuts

v. No management control or feedback mechanisms

b. Scope/Quality

i. Scope is not defined or poorly defined (a top reason projects fail/delayed)

ii. Deliverables not defined

iii. Myriad scope changes without consideration of affect on Time/cost.

1. Marketing changes to

a. product requirements

b. Use requirements

c. Volume-from a 10k/mo to 1mm/mo.

d. Countries in which product will be sold

2. Manufacturing changes

a. Manual assembly vs automation

b. Mfg. location changes (from one plant to another)

3. R&D can easily add one more product feature

4. Regulatory issues

5. Legal issues

6. On and on and on……

c. Cost/Resources

i. Resources shuffled around due to firefighting because of No project-program-portfolio management.

ii. Poorly trained resources as in “(S)he’s an engineer let’s make him/her a project manager!”

iii. Task/Skill level mismatched

iv. Key Skill sets assigned to too many projects (always and always a bottleneck)

Hint: Lookup Critical Chain project management if this is a regular issue

d. Management dictating all three elements of the PM triple constraints (cost/scope/time).

This is dictating the length of all three sides of a triangle. Sometimes the ends meet sometimes they don’t, e.g. two short sides and one really long side. This also happens more than we care to admit and usually with a hand wave, “Make it so….”

Business Management

a. Projects/programs don’t align with strategy

i. No strategy

ii. Constantly changing strategies

iii. Not keeping up with changes in strategy

iv. Executive pet projects (happens all the time)

v. No method to determine if projects/programs align with strategy

b. Management doesn’t understand business strategy requires an implementation strategy.

It’s easy to say we’re going to the moon but if you don’t have any idea of what it may take it’s only a dream (or is that nightmare?)

c. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

A famous quotation attributed to the late business management guru Peter Drucker speaking to the need to have a business culture that can execute the strategy or recognize the need to change the culture to align with strategy.

d. No project/program portfolio management

i. Too many projects (This gets my vote for the No. 1 reason projects fail or delayed and a key killer of company moral.)

Many midsize companies easily have 200-300+ projects they can identify across all disciplines, e.g. R&D, Software, Mfg., Regulatory, Medical, Customer Service, Field Service, Supply Chain, etc.
As a manager of an R&D group in a large company I had 40+ projects for my group alone including NPI, line extensions, and Sustaining Engineering.

a. Some are high priority and assigned w/resources and costs.

b. Some are assigned w/resources and costs but no one is sure of their priority.

c. Some are picked at and mosey along when someone can spend some of their very limited time moving them along.

d. Some are hidden using hard dollars and resources

e. Some are department or executive pet projects

f. Some are project names or concepts only, on the To Do list, and without definition, scope, or resources.

g. Most require multidisciplinary teams.

ii. Too few resources/too few key resources

iii. All projects are top priority (therefore none are)

iv. Executive pet projects (happens all the time)

v. Not knowing the difference between a project, a program, and a strategy.

e. No project/program sponsor.

f. Lack of key decision making resulting in lack of scope definition.

i. Legal issues

ii. Regulatory issues

iii. Other issues(?)

iv. Flip flopping on decisions dependent upon whose making them or stakeholders involved.

This may happen when key decisions are made and take a long time to implement. Over time a new leader comes in who is now responsible for the former decision and does not believe in that decision and changes it without consideration of downstream effects.

This is a short list of the more typical causes of project failure and delay. My vote for the top two causes are:

1. Too many projects (or not enough resources) resulting in regular shifts in resource assignment and priorities.

2. No or poor scope definition resulting in regular changes to project deliverables.

Either of the above, if done perpetually, results in extremely inefficient performance and low morale.

The challenge in curing any disease is to: 1) Acknowledge there is a problem and 2) Diagnosis. Once a diagnosis is made as to potential cause(s) adequate steps may be taken to address causes.

Have a look through the list again, reminisce, and see if you recognize those causes that have affected your projects.

Question: What will you do differently next time?



Situational Leadership

“(S)he’s a micromanager.” How many times have you heard this in the workplace? In other words, a boss who tells you the who, what, when, where and how to get something done and checks on you every five minutes to make sure it’s getting done… right. The other end of this spectrum could be referred to as “being in over your head.” This is a situation where you could use some additional support, assistance, knowledge, or guidance and get…none. In both cases the management style does not work.

This article is a very brief introduction to the subject of Situational Leadership (SL). I’ve used this method successfully in the past. There is a great deal of information available regarding SL that goes into greater detail regarding the research and methodology. I urge you to read additional material on the subject and try the methodology. As PMs (i.e. project, program, people managers) we are constantly dealing with a plethora of individuals from novices to those with very broad and deep skills and experience. SL assists in our understanding and gives us a tool to adapt to our ever-changing needs. Once familiar with the SL model you will better understand why the particular management styles described in the above examples fail, irritates, and creates low moral for those that continually experience it.


Situational Leadership is a means to understand an individual’s “readiness” for a specific task, defined as one’s:

a) capability skill level for that task and,

b) willingness to accomplish the task.

Determining an individual’s “readiness” assists the boss-manager-supervisor-coach-mom-dad (“leader” for the rest of this article) in understanding how best to approach, coach, support, and instruct the individual, group, or team (“follower” for the rest of this article) that will result in successful task completion. Each assignment or task is unique requiring a review of readiness to determine the style of leadership best suited for the specific task and situation.


The readiness of the “follower” determines how much engagement is required by the “leader”. Engagement consists of task and relationship behavior based on the following:

  1. Follower’s Readiness level – “The ability and willingness of a person to take responsibility for directing their own behavior.”  This is in context of a specific task to be performed.
  2. Leader’s Task Behavior – Based on the follower’s readiness level. A one way communication to the follower as to how much of the details of what, when, where, and how the task is to be accomplished.
    Task Behavior runs the gamut of the follower being assigned and executing the task for the first time where the Leader explains in detail as to how and when to accomplish the task (High Task Behavior). The other end of the spectrum would be the follower being an expert at the task where the Leader let’s go (essentially hands off) and fully delegates the task (Low Task Behavior).
  3. Leader’s Relationship Behavior – Two way communication with the follower to support and facilitate desired Task Behaviors.
    Relationship Behavior can be low when the follower is an expert and the leader “delegates” or low when the follower is new to the task and behavior is by communicating in one direction and “telling” the follower what to do. Relationship Behavior is high when the follower is past the mechanics of the task and the leader begins a two-way communication to explain and “sell” why the Leader wants the task completed a certain way, or when, as they become more familiar with the task, the follower begins to understand the task sufficiently to share their ideas and “participates” in the learning and development process.

Basic Concept

The model lies in a two by two matrix resulting in four levels of readiness summarized in Table 1. Along one axis, going from High to Low, is the willingness of the follower executing the task or assignment.   High willingness may mean the individual has performed the task in the past with a successful outcome or it may mean they are anxious to learn a new skill and desire to apply themselves to a new challenge. Low willingness could mean that this follower has performed this task a hundred times already and is not looking forward to doing it again or perhaps they had an earlier attempt and failed or they just are not sure they can successfully complete the task.

Along the other axis, also going from High to Low, is the follower’s capability to perform the task. High capability means the follower is knowledgeable, skilled, and competent at the task. Low capability means the follower has never done this task before or perhaps only one or a few times with mixed results.
There are four readiness levels each having a unique designation; R1, R2, R3, R4.

R1- High Willingness, Low Capability (Low)

R2- Low Willingness, Low Capability   (Moderate)

R3- Low Willingness, High Capability (Moderate)

R4- High Willingness, High Capability (High)

Each of the quadrants describes a different follower. The key to managing these four different followers is in understanding their level of readiness.

Follower Readiness

Table 1. Follower Readiness

Leadership styles, S1-S4, for managing the four readiness levels, R1-R4, are described below and can be found in Figure 1.

S1-High-task, low-relationship behavior.   Also known as “Telling” style as the leader is mainly telling the follower the what, when, where, and how of completing the task. There typically is minimal two-way communication.

S2-High-task, high-relationship behavior. Also known as “Selling” style as the leader still directs the follower but spends additional time convincing the follower as to why certain decisions were made. Two way communication is high.

S3-High-relationship, low-task behavior. Also known as “Participating” style as the follower has attained the knowledge and skill and the leader spends additional time in two-way communication while sharing decision-making.

S4-Low-relationship, low-task behavior. Also known as “Delegating” style as the follower has attained the knowledge and skills and willingness for the task and the leader hands over decision-making to the follower demonstrating trust in the follower. There typically is minimal two-way communication.

Leader Behavior

Figure 1. Leader Behavior

The Process

  1. Determine the specific task to be accomplished by the follower.
  2. Ask the capability question. Is this the first time the follower will attempt this task or is this a task that has been successfully accomplished by the follower in the past? Perhaps this is a task attempted previously by this follower that ended in failure.
  3. Ask the willingness question. Is the follower eager to tackle this new assignment or afraid of trying something new or different for fear of failure? Is this someone who has successfully completed this task a hundred times and doesn’t feel challenged?
  4. Determine the readiness level of the follower in relation to the assigned task. Determine the capability level and the willingness level on the Follower Readiness table shown in Figure 2. Note the location of the “X” on the table for this example. Marking the location for this situation will assist the leader in understanding which style will be most appropriate in assisting the follower in successfully completing this task.
  5. Draw a line from the X up into the chart until it intersects with the curved line running through the chart. Where the line intersects the curve will be the quadrant and the leadership style to use for this situation based on the styles S1-S4.
Figure 2. The Situational Leadership Model.

Figure 2. The Situational Leadership Model.

In this example follower readiness is low therefore the leadership style will be S1-High-task, low-relationship behavior meaning the leader will spend most of their time telling the following how to do the task and regularly following up to ensure adequate quality and completion. What they should not do is use an S2, S3, or S4 style.


Let’s go back to the very first paragraph and our examples. We now have a way to describe what is happening. Micromanaging results when follower readiness is R4 High Willingness, High Capability and the management style used is S1 High-task, low-relationship behavior. You can now see why the leadership style fails, “Don’t tell me how to do my job”. The follower can do the task while the leader is only getting in the way either because of control or trust issues.

In the second example follower readiness is R1 or R2 Low capability while the leadership style used is S3 or S4. This follower requires additional details on how to do the task and is not getting it because the leader is unavailable for any number of reasons.

Please explore additional material on this subject. This article is only to suggest that Situational Leadership is a good idea and could be a useful management tool. This is only a little bit of knowledge. Wisdom comes from knowing when and how to use the knowledge.


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