Why do Most Project Managers Fail?

I spend a portion of my time recovering troubled projects or helping project managers avoid traveling down the road towards a troubled project. In doing this, I keep making the same observation over and over again: most project managers are failing.

To better understand why I am saying this, we’ll first have to understand what I mean by failure. Most people understand the basic premise that project management success consists of two things: a successful outcome, and a successful journey towards reaching that outcome. If we could even get project managers to focus on only those two elements, I think we’d be improving our overall success rates and the perception of the profession in the business world. However, many project managers think about project management success as consisting of having a good plan, and following that plan, while staying on time, within budget, and with acceptable quality. I agree that for many projects, doing those things alone would be a huge improvement and may, in fact, be very difficult to achieve.

I have a more mature view of project management success, however, one that considers many factors:


  1. Product Success – Does the product or service produced by the project meet the functional and performance expectations of the project sponsor? Does it satisfy all of the key needs and has it been launched in a way that ensures a smooth transition with all applicable support structures in place?
  2. Project Success – Does the project stick to the costs and timelines outlined in the business case? Did the project capitalize on opportunities for improving the business case through discovering and applying innovative approaches, optimizing processes to maximize the delivery of business value, and adhering to the technical, procedural, and other constraints?
  3. Relationship Success – During the course of project delivery, did the project manager maintain a good relationship with the project sponsor and extended list of project stakeholders? It is no good to deliver a good project on time and on budget while building animosity with the sponsor and stakeholders during the process.
  4. Project Team Success – Were the task assignments, work locations, and other decisions made with the needs and preferences of the project team in mind? Was the project managed in a way that allowed for some work-life balance for team members? Were work hours reasonable? Did team members have a say in how their work was estimated and planned?

Taking these last two factors into account significantly broadens the scope of a project manager’s domain of responsibility. You cannot say that project management was successful if the team was burned out and demoralized, or if the project sponsor was angered so much that he or she won’t work with the project manager again. One really needs to consider these additional success factors when planning a project.

Now that you understand my broad view of project management success, you’ll better be able to understand my earlier comment that most project managers fail – they just aren’t thinking broadly enough. Most project management texts that I’ve read don’t go into this level of detail – even the PMBok Guide published by the Project Management Institute does not define either project success or project management success, though it does say that project objectives must include at least cost, schedule and quality elements. So, it’s no wonder that there is some confusion over what elements should be included.

For those of you willing to look outside of the PMI empire for good ideas, the International Project Management Association (IPMA) publishes a standard called the International Competence Baseline (ICB). The current version (v3) includes a definition of project success (“the appreciation of the various interested parties of the project outcomes”) and a definition of project management success that makes up one of twenty project management technical competencies described in the international standard, along with fifteen behavioural competencies and eleven project contextual competencies. The ICB states that a project that is terminated (i.e. it has failed) could still achieve project management success if the appropriate management processes were used to trigger the termination decision and to control the orderly shutdown of the project. The IPMA is clearly taking on a broad view of project management success, one that is much broader than PMI’s nine project management knowledge areas covered in the PMBoK Guide.

Regardless of whether you follow the PMI or the IPMA standards, a broader, more holistic view of project management success is necessary to ensure that you are taking all of the relevant factors into account when you are planning your next project. Take the time to think through all four success elements, and you will find that your project may go more smoothly with a greater chance of being considered successful by all relevant parties.

Kevin Aguanno is a certified executive project manager with over 20 years of experience. He is the author of over 20 books, audiobooks, and DVDs on project management-related topics, and he is a well-known professional speaker. His competency as a project manager has been certified by both IBM and the IPMA, and his PM knowledge by PMI. Aguanno is the Vice President of the Project Management Association of Canada, the Canadian IPMA member association. Find out more about him at www.AgilePM.com.


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