The Causes of Project Failure

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The Causes of Project Failure
JEFFREY K. PINTO AND SAMUEL J. MANTEL, JR. and failure. Some years ago, a noted expert on project management wrote, “The many instances where project management fails overshadow the stories of successful projects [2].” While there is little reason to adopt such a pessimistic view today, if we can gain knowledge about the nature and causes of project failure, we will improve our ability to implement projects. The primary purpose of this paper is to report the results of a recent study that was performed to determine if there exist patterns of causes of project failure depending on three contingency variables, 1) the way in which failure is defined, 2 ) the type of project being studied; and 3) the stage of the project’s life cycle at the time it is assessed. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND The search for factors that influence project success or failure has been of great interest to both researchers and practitioners. Several lines of research exist in a growing body of literature dealing with the subject, all of it an attempt to develop methods to aid project managers to evaluate their projects, if not objectively, at least systematically [8]. One stream of work is focused on developing decision rules and/or decision support systems to aid in making systematic decisions about which, if any, projects should be terminated [51-[71, 1171, [19], [22]. A second stream focuses on the development of a set of indicators or identifiable conditions so that problems with a project can be identified and addressed before it has failed [2], [2 11. A third stream of research, an extension of the second but far more developed, suggests that project success is associated with the existence of several critical implementation factors (e.g., clear project mission, detailed project schedules, sufficient resources, etc.) [4], [14], [16]. In addition, recent research has demonstrated that the relative importance of these factors are often contingent on specific project characteristics, such as the type of project and its stage in the project life cycle 121, 131. As noted above, little analytic work has been devoted to defining project failure. The phrase usually refers to a project that is terminated prior to completion. There may, however, be many reasons to cease work on an uncompleted project. Legal, social, political, technological, and/or economic environments may change in ways to obviate the project. Some external emergency may force the withdrawal of funds from the project. In such cases it seems inappropriate to say the project failed. If, however, we are able to suggest some basic dimensions to use in assessing project success or failure, project managers will be in a better position to determine the likelihood of implementation success (and, perhaps, to act so

Abstract-A study was conducted of 97 projects identified as failures by the projects’ managers or parent organizations. Using the project implementation profile a set of managerially controllable factors were identified as associated with project failure. The factors differed according to three contingency variables: 1) the precise way in which failure was defined; 2) the type of project; and 3) the stage of the project in its life cycle. Implications for project management and for future research on failed projects were noted.

INTRODUCTION HE attempt to gain a more complete understanding of the causes of project failure has been a difficult task for both academic researchers and practitioners. First, the concept of project failure is nebulous. Few people agree on exactly how to define project failure. The project management literature has a variety of definitions and distinctive examples of project failure, suggesting a basic lack of consensus and/or parsimony with regard to the topic. A second difficulty is that much of the research on project failure...
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