How to spot the signs of a failing project

100Statistics suggest that, in the UK, as many as 70% of large scale public projects end in failure with consequences being loss of public money. Signs of impending disaster are often visible at the outset when best practice can be used to increase the chances of success. Examples given by author Alison Coleman are;-

  • The NHS National Programme for IT, which was disbanded in 2011 having cost £12 billion from an original budget of £2.3 billion.
  • The BBCs Digital Media Initiative , scrapped after 5 years at a cost of £100 million

The article asks “is such wide-scale failure and financial waste avoidable?” and says that these failures were largely the result of complacency, lack of planning ,and a rush to find partners and begin work , rather than taking time to clearly delineate the projects aims.

Andy Sloanes, chief technical operator at Bell Integration says “If a project is in trouble it should be obvious as soon as the planning and discovery phase is over….. If sufficient budget and care has not been allocated to this phase then very soon project managers will see unexpected issues appearing with apparently straightforward tasks…..In this situation PMs should have the confidence to bring things to a halt and re-examine the project, taking it back to square one if necessary. “

Problematic signs would include shifting deadlines, new requests, and unexpected risks. In 2014 the Major Projects Authority red lighted several major public IT projects that they deemed unachievable.

Tracey Goddard, director of professional services for Europe, Middle east and Africa at Changepoint commented “the failures and delays experienced by these projects have largely been caused by a misunderstanding of the original requirements, underestimation of the resources needed and miscalculations around the technical specifications “

So what are the early warning signs to look out for?

The plan should clearly state the objectives and how they will be achieved says Jon White MD of Turner and Turner. “Anything less than total clarity at the start of the project risks being compounded by the pressures of the delivery phase “

Another warning sign is ineffective governance that fails to engage all stakeholders, leading them to become disillusioned and disengaged.

Board members looking after sectional interests rather than being collectively accountable for the entire project is another issue.
There must be a clear baseline scope for work to be done, and its estimated cost. Any changes should be prepared against the baseline and the projected total cost considered for the project to remain in control.

Poor communication between managers, contractors and client can cause delays and undermine progress.

Changepoints Tracey Goddard comments that it is difficult to judge when to pull the plug on a project “particularly when there has been a high level of investment, and this is why you need monitoring throughout the life of a project to identify when things are going wrong “

The article lists the primary causes of failed projects in the past 12 months. The most common are;-

  • Change in organisations priorities
  • Inaccurate requirements gathering
  • Change in project objectives
  • Opportunities and risks not defined
  • Inadequate/poor communication
  • Inadequate vision or goal
  • Inadequate sponsor support
  • Inadequate cost estimate

Source PMI 2015