PM Horror Stories: Lessons SMBs Can Learn From Stories of Project Failure

By: on October 25, 2016

Every Halloween, we carve pumpkins and regale each other with frightening stories that make the hairs on the backs of our necks stand on end.

But let’s not forget that tales of terror don’t have to involve ghosts or evil clowns to be scary. In fact, for those who have faced a project management (PM) failure, the experience may still haunt their dreams.

To help you ward off similar nightmares, we’ve compiled a list of common project management mistakes along with some advice from Gartner analyst and research VP, Michael Hanford, on how to avoid them.

So venture on, if you dare. But don’t forget to take a copy of our checklist of PM best practices with you when you go.

Common Project Management Mistakes

In Gartner’s article “Steer Clear of Common Program Management Train Wrecks” (this content is available to Gartner clients), analyst Hanford draws from over 150 client interactions and outlines several issues that plague Gartner enterprise clients.

While the torments of enterprise organizations do not always align with those of SMBs, the spirit of many of Hanford’s recommendations can guide organizations of every size.

To that end, we’ve outlined the following common project management mistakes and distilled Hanford’s recommendations into advice that can help SMBs avoid a similar fate.

Mistake #1: Too Many Witches Around the Cauldron

You may be more familiar with phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen,” but the meaning behind this first mistake is the same. Hanford warns that without a defined hierarchy of real (not assumed) power and responsibility, projects can flounder and lack a sense of direction or focus.

Use Case: The lack of a PM hierarchy becomes especially dangerous when decisions have to be made regarding proposed project changes. When there are several people in governance positions, it can be hard to come to an agreement on which direction, if any, the project should move in.

Hanford describes a particular instance in which a company had so many people in parallel governing positions that discussions lasted too long.

As a result, the event being discussed came and went before a decision could be made. Then the group had to discuss proper recourse, which resulted in another tedious review. Without a singular driving force, the project eventually came to standstill.

Besides failing to fully achieve business objectives, projects that end in stalemate waste valuable resources that SMBs can’t afford to throw away.

Advice: Clearly define who your project stakeholders are and take steps to understand each person’s level of interest in and impact on the project. Doing so can help you identify overlaps in governance so you can resolve them before the onset of the project. For more information about stakeholder management, click here.

Moreover, a project management office (PMO) can be a useful tool for SMBs looking to create this hierarchy and standardize workflows across the organization. Creating a PMO often means dictating a PMO charter, which outlines the processes and system of checks and balances that each project must stick to.

Mistake #2: Taking the Shortcut That Leads You Into Danger

The next mistake outlines the danger of shortcutting industry best practices in the hopes of saving time or money. This inevitably results in a loss of quality.

Hanford notes that this shortcut rarely seems menacing and is often taken by those with the best intentions. For example, the project sponsor may appoint an internal project manager based on general management ability, instead of hiring an outside firm with hands-on, situational experience.

For SMBs especially, overstating their own capabilities rather than trusting those of service providers can be a grave mistake as they have less capacity than enterprises do to recover from this miscalculation.

Use Case: Chris Savoie, currently the director of product strategy at Workfront, recalls a challenging software implementation that he experienced during a previous employment with a specialized oil and gas consulting firm.

The goal was to implement a new internal ERP system; however, after receiving the vendor’s quote for the cost of the software with implementation services, the firm felt confident that they could skip the third-party consulting and training services and have the internal project team implement the ERP system in less time and for less money.

“They quoted us a number for the software. Then they quoted us a number for implementing it…I think the number for the software and the implementation was $20K more than what we thought it would cost us to pay our employees to do it.”

Chris Savoie, director of product strategy at Workfront

Savoie says that the results were less than ideal, and in the long run likely cost the firm more than if they’d paid for the third-party implementation services in the first place.

“The [third-party] team was an expert in evaluating business processes and getting you up and running effectively and implementing best practices,” says Savoie.

However, by declining those services, they never had the benefit of third-party scrutiny and analysis of their internal business processes, nor an education on best practices for using the new ERP system.

When the ERP system was rolled out, there were inconsistencies in financial reporting, but without detailed knowledge of the ERP, it wasn’t clear why.

“It took us longer to figure that out, to figure where the problem was, than it took us to pitch it and put the plan together and do everything else. So we ended up paying for the time and the cost anyways in the end.”

Chris Savoie, director of product strategy at Workfront

Advice: Savoie’s advice to SMBs is to acknowledge the risk before deciding to forego industry best practices. Ask, “If this project fails, partially or completely, is my business going to tank or go under?”

If your SMB cannot tolerate failure, do not cut corners to save time or money. Instead, take whatever route minimizes your risk, even if it’s the longer path to success.

Mistake #3: Not Listening to That Voice Inside Your Head

When you establish a PMO, your organization should develop project evaluation criteria to ensure that each green-lighted project initiative aligns with organizational goals. But as Hanford warns, too often the strategic direction and expectations of a project are never revisited after the project gets underway.

This can lead to a misalignment between what stakeholders assumed was a purposeful goal at the initiation of the project versus what organizational needs are at the time of delivery.

Failure to address the changes caused by internal and external forces during project execution can result in a project that checks every box, i.e., delivers requirements and comes in on time and on budget, yet fails to add value to the organization.

Use Case: We’re going to draw another example from Savoie’s experience outlined in the previous use case.

Savoie says that the project team ran the ERP implementation using Microsoft Project. They broke the implementation down into achievable milestones, assigned resources and scheduled due dates. From the outside, they ran the project perfectly, executed and hit the scheduled milestones.

However, a few weeks into the implementation, the project leader remarked he didn’t think they were going about implementing the new system in the right way. Savoie remembers the project leader was concerned, saying:

‘Yes, we can make the [ERP] do that and we can make the [ERP] do that by that date, but I don’t think that’s the right way to use the software, and I don’t think that’s the right thing for us to do for the business.’

Despite these misgivings, the implementation continued as planned.

While the initial goal was to implement an ERP that would offer greater oversight into business operations, this initiative had been altered by the decision not to use third-party implementation services. As a result, the firm did not benefit from an audit of internal business processes nor receive proper training on how to set up the ERP.

Although the ERP was rolled out by the project team on time and on budget, it failed to deliver the expected value to the organization. Instead of providing oversight into business operations, the inconsistencies in financial reporting left them more in the dark than ever.

Advice: To combat this issue, Gartner analyst Hanford recommends that businesses initiate a platform for in-progress project review. During this review, stakeholders should evaluate the project’s current status and achievement of goals against expected results at delivery.

Then, and perhaps most importantly, address the issues and questions that are brought up by stakeholders and make any changes required so the final result is sure to deliver value.

Earned value management (EVM) metrics can be particularly helpful for organizations wanting to objectively measure project performance against a defined scope. To read more about implementing EVM at your SMB, go here.

Next Steps: Download Checklist

Project management mistakes are inevitable, and you will likely experience project failure at least once in your career. But don’t forget that there are lessons to be learned from every stalemate, dangerous shortcut and sneaking suspicion—so don’t let your project management mistakes keep you up at night.

Instead, download our checklist of PM best practices to help you keep future mistakes at bay.

Do you have your own story of project management failure that you’d like to share with us? Email me at I’d love to hear what lessons you learned and how making those mistakes helped you actually improve your processes moving forward.

I’m also available to discuss the project management tools available for SMBs. I can answer any questions you may have, and once you’re ready to start evaluating solutions, I can help get you set up with product demos and price quotes.

If you’re interested in subscribing to our project management research, sign up here to receive our monthly newsletters.

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