5 early warning signs of project failure

Far too many projects still do not meet intended goals. Here are five leading indicators of a failing project that — when caught — can drastically improve your project’s chances for success.

Credit: Paul Brennan, public domain

Project failure is costly. While the Project Management Institute (PMI) last year reported that a 20 percent decrease in project failure rates versus the previous year, the amount of money lost to failed projects remains staggering, with an average of US$97 million for every $1 billion invested in projects going to waste.

There are many reasons why projects still fail but paying close attention to and addressing these five early warning signs immediately can help keep things moving in the right direction with less strife and causes for concern, and ultimately decrease the risk of project failure.

1. A change-resistant culture

One of the first (and biggest) warning signs that your project may be headed for failure is an internal culture that is resistant to change. Projects bring about improvements in workflows and new operational best practices, often with an increased use of technology. These changes can create a significant amount of fear, as employees assume the end result will mean job losses or major disruption to their individual working world. Many projects have been internally sabotaged right from the start as result of these fears.

How can you tell if you have a culture that is resistant to change? Employees who are resistant to change are often reluctant to share information and exhibit negative attitudes towards the project and its benefits, either through direct communication or body language and facial expressions. Alleviating these fears by creating a culture that embraces change is key. There should be frequent and clear communication about the purpose of each project and its impact on jobs. This is critical in calming fears so that employees are not resistant or uncooperative.

2. Sponsors that are seldom available

Another major reason projects fall short is a lack of project sponsorship and buy-in by executives.

The role of project sponsors is to assist with championing the project, assisting with securing funding, resolving conflict, and providing support to project, program and portfolio managers. Project managers rely on sponsors for day-to-day support, leadership advice, and to demonstrate to employees and other stakeholders that the project is backed by company executives.

If the project sponsors are frequently absent or seem to show they do not care about the project, projects can start off on the wrong foot and fail to get off the ground. A lack of perceived support by executives and sponsors can make it difficult for project managers in turn to gain buy-in from other stakeholders and team members. Project managers need to work with sponsors to maintain visible continuity in terms of support for the project from start to completion.

3. More questions than answers

An ambiguous project purpose leads to more questions than answers and eventually leads to unrealistic goal attainment. At the onset it is crucial to nail down the exact purpose of the project and as many of the key details as possible for later breakdown. Proceeding with a project without having a clear understanding of the need for the project or its goals will make it virtually impossible to be successful. This ambiguity can cause significant confusion for stakeholders and team members, and risk vital tasks, insights, and deliverables. The first glimpse of confusion is your early warning signs that something is wrong. Before isolated confusion becomes more widespread, project managers need to apply the brakes to get everyone on the right track.

4. Disconnected or disinterested team members

As project teams are assembled, it's vital to ensure all individuals are fully vested in the project and their role in it, and that they are fully accountable for their impact on the project. If team members fail to recognize their role, it can create a gap in their contribution levels that may become large enough to jeopardize the project. The full strength of the team depends on the weight that each individual contributes. If any team member becomes disconnected or disinterested, it usually reflects early in the project through outward behavior before it is seen through the quality and timing of their work. If unaddressed, this will eventually impact the attitudes and contributions of other team members as well and increase the likelihood of failure overall. There may be many reasons why individuals are disconnected or disinterested, from overloaded schedules to internal conflict. It is important for project managers to identify and address issues immediately before they translate into larger complex issues.

5. Lack of confidence in the project manager

If stakeholders, project teams, vendors, or other executives lack confidence in a project manager at the start of a project it can be a great cause for concern. The reasons can be many; some may be warranted, while others may not necessarily be substantiated, but the outcome remains the same and can derail a project early on. Early warning signs may include the lack of response by others to a project manager’s written communications, an unwillingness to collaborate, nonverbal signs indicating disrespect, constant challenging of authority, and visible signs of disinterest in participating in the project. Project sponsors and project managers need to work together to identify issues of concern and gain the confidence of all parties at project initiation or risk losing control of the project right from out of the gates.


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