When has a project failed?

When has a project failed? In a recent coaching session, one of the Project Managers asked this question and it’s a really interesting topic that I wanted to share some thoughts on.

When can you consider a project failed?

It depends on what the original aims and objectives were. Some organisations look at any deviation as a failure and some consider a failure only as when the end goal has not been achieved (despite deviations with budget, timeline etc).

For me, a project fails when it either doesn’t meet its original objective (for whatever reason) or is no longer valid/needed by the organisation that it’s been provided to. It can also be reflected in your teams opinion. A project could have delivered the scope, timeline and budget but if the team do not agree or if they do not think that it’s added the ‘right‘ value, this could give another indication of a failed project.

How do you know if your project has failed?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you think that you project has failed/is failing:

  • Is your project delayed? over budget? not delivering original scope?
  • Does your organisation define when projects has failed?
    • This could be within your PMO. Some organisations say that once a project goes 10% over it’s original baselines
  • What does your team/stakeholders think?
    • Teams can be a great indication of a project failure and success. It’s worth reading the team’s emotions and feelings for what they think and see if there are a wider indication of a project’s success or failure.
    • One large indication of success or failure is the perception from your stakeholders
  • The PMI has some ideas for when a project has failed or not


What can you do if you think your project is failing / has failed?

If you think that your project is at risk of failing, you have several options to pursue:

  1. Look at rectifying the situation. Can you change the outcome of your project?
  2. Understand what’s possible to achieve at whatever stage of the project you are in. Discuss with your stakeholders what is feasible to deliver at this stage of the project. Can you change

Is a failed project, always bad news?

From a purist point of view, Yes, a failed project is bad news but in the larger picture; a lot of projects ‘fail’ against their original specifications. According to CIO, over 55% of IT projects fail and this is a trend that is not reducing over time.

When I took a quick poll among colleagues and I asked them: how many of their projects were delivered meeting their original baselines, it was less than 10%. The reasons for it? Changing customer requirements, poorly/inadequately sold, lack of scope definition, resource underestimation…. the list goes on! But I think it’s important to realise that in the current climate, most projects will ‘fail’ to some extent and we should instead look to the softer indications of success:

  • Does the end customer / stakeholder believe that the project is a success?
  • Did the project deliver what was needed to the organisation?
  • Did the project add the necessary value it was intended for?

What do you think? What’s your definition of a failed project?


  1. Em,

    Can I reply to this when I get home? I’m traveling right now. But I ran a company that turned around troubled, failed projects. I learned a lot. Many things I sort of wish I didn’t.

    I don’t want to stomp on your blog- just say JUMP BACK and and I’ll be fine.


    .. .–. …. — -. .



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