When has a project failed?

The decision to stop a project is never easy, but it's important to recognize when a project has no future. Often those involved are not aware that their project has long been doomed. The challenge is to distinguish between a temporary crisis and definitive failure. A project is considered to have failed if it does not achieve its objectives, does not produce the desired results, or if the work cannot be completed as planned. Continuing with a project that has no prospects is a waste of valuable resources such as time, money and staff. It is therefore of the utmost importance to recognize the warning signs of a failing project at an early stage and to take the difficult but necessary decision to terminate the project to avoid further losses.
A man in a suit sits desperately at his desk with his hands in his hair.


Indicators of failed projects

There are a number of indicators that can lead to the failure of a project. The following list is therefore not exhaustive. Many other indicators can be derived from these points:

Failure to meet project requirements due to unclear objectives and unrealistic expectations 

Setting clear and achievable project goals is the cornerstone of project success. Goals that are vague or unknown to the team will result in people working without clear direction, increasing the risk of failure. Effective communication and planning is essential to ensure that each team member understands what needs to be achieved. Incorporating the SMART formula into goal setting, with a particular focus on 'measurability', allows for an objective assessment of progress and success. Involving the team in goal setting or clearly communicating goals can ensure that everyone is working towards the same goal.
A concrete example illustrates the importance of goal setting: Instead of the vague goal of "improving the app interface", set a concrete goal such as "improve the app start page by adding new headings, text and images (specific and realistic) using customer feedback from Q1 (measurable and achievable) with the goal of completion by the end of Q3 (time-bound)". This example shows how the SMART formula makes goals tangible and trackable.
To monitor progress and ensure the project stays on track, regular project status reports are essential. They promote communication within the team, allow early detection of deviations from the plan and facilitate the timely implementation of corrective measures.
Scope Creep

Scope creep, also known as the insidious expansion of project scope, is one of the biggest challenges in project management. Scope creep occurs when project deliverables inadvertently exceed the originally defined project scope, resulting in unplanned additional work. This phenomenon is often a direct result of unclear or unknown project objectives. If the team does not know exactly what is to be achieved, it is easy to take on additional tasks that go beyond the original scope. These additional tasks not only lead to delays in the project plan and missed deadlines, but also require additional resources, ultimately costing time and money.
To avoid this unwanted scope creep, it is important to continuously monitor the project status. Regular reviews can ensure that the project team is on track and that all activities are in line with the defined objectives. If deviations are detected, it is important to quickly identify the causes and take appropriate countermeasures.
Budget overruns

This goes hand in hand with the above: Poorly defined project scope and scope creep often lead to an exponential increase in the resources invested in the project, especially in financial terms. However, it is a fallacy to believe that increasing financial resources alone can save a project from failure. Careful and realistic budgeting from the outset is therefore essential for project success. This budgeting is based on estimates derived from experience with previous projects and sets realistic expectations for project costs. However, it is important to build in a contingency reserve to allow for unforeseen events and delays. A financial buffer is therefore advisable in order to be able to react to such situations without breaking the project budget.
Once this buffer is exhausted, project management should critically review the project and consider whether further investment is justified, a reorientation is necessary or the project has failed.

Conflict within the project team and poor communication

Even when a project team is well prepared in terms of scope, goals and budget, internal dynamics and collaboration can cause a project to fail. Conflicts, lack of communication, lack of empathy and lack of social skills are common hurdles that need to be overcome. Effective team building and communication activities can help by strengthening cohesion and fostering a culture of mutual understanding and empathy. These measures help to improve interpersonal relationships within the team and create a positive working atmosphere.
If, despite these efforts, insurmountable conflicts arise, it may be necessary to change the composition of the team. While this may present short-term challenges, such as the onboarding of new team members, it can contribute to the long-term success of the project. The key is to be proactive and address issues early to avoid major complications.
Choosing the right communication medium is also crucial. In today's interconnected world, where information flows through many channels, it is easy to miss important messages. This can lead to delays and misunderstandings that jeopardise the project. A clearly defined communication plan that outlines how and where information will be shared is essential to ensure that all team members are on the same page and can work together efficiently. Such a plan will help to bridge communication gaps and ensure that important information arrives on time and through the right channels.
General resource overruns

In addition to human and financial resources, time and materials play a critical role in the success of a project. Miscalculations in material procurement, whether ordering the wrong or insufficient quantities, can lead to significant delays. These delays often have a knock-on effect, causing additional costs such as the need to employ staff for longer than originally planned.
To avoid variances and ensure project success, resource management and regular review of resource planning are essential. This is the only way to make timely corrections when it becomes apparent that actual resource use is different from the original plan. Otherwise, deviations can lead to project failure.

Recognizing the right time to terminate a project

The decision to terminate a project is often a difficult one, but knowing when to do so is critical to the efficient use of resources and the long-term success of an organisation. If a project continues to require additional funding beyond the original budget, or if profitability is declining and expected benefits are diminishing, these are clear signs that termination should be considered. Continuing to invest in such a project may only delay the inevitable and tie up valuable resources that could be better spent elsewhere.
It is also important to assess whether the project can be saved, either through internal optimisation or by bringing in external expertise. The efficiency and effectiveness of the team is crucial. It is important to assess whether the current team is capable of delivering the project or whether structural changes are needed.
Identifying the right time to stop a project is a complex task that requires a deep understanding of project indicators and a realistic assessment of the situation. It's not just about overcoming current challenges, but also about considering the long-term impact on the business. In the end, a wise project termination can free up resources for other, more promising initiatives, making it a strategic decision for the future.


The successful delivery of a project depends heavily on a thorough and comprehensive project planning phase. This phase is crucial for defining and realistically assessing important aspects such as timelines, resources, costs and objectives. A well-thought-out plan lays the foundation for the entire course of the project and helps to identify and avoid potential stumbling blocks early on.
If a project is in danger of failing, whether due to poor planning or unforeseen events, it is essential to reassess the situation using the above indicators. It is necessary to decide whether and how to take countermeasures to get the project back on track. The ability to respond flexibly to change and adjust planning accordingly is invaluable.

When has a project failed - the IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management

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