Business Problems and Solutions

Why do Projects Fail Even Though Good People are Working Hard?

Have you ever found yourself sitting at your desk, your emails front and centre on your screen, quietly shaking your head? I need an update! Where are you with this? Has everybody filled out the weekly update?

How about these other familiar head shakers:

The team is writing code like crazy, but the number of user stories only ever grows, it never shrinks. The analysts, normally so good at meeting deadlines, are struggling to get multiple deliverables finished which are all due at the same time.

If you are part of the project or someone on the outside looking in, it’s a frustrating way to do business. And the sad reality is, it happens more often than not.

There has to be a better way.

There is. Exceptional leadership.

Before we sack the project manager or search for a new sponsor, let’s look at leadership and see why it’s such an integral part of project success, and what you can do to change it.

What is Leadership?

Leadership comes in many shapes and sizes with almost as many definitions as there are leaders. Just consider the leaders you know and admire, how different are their approaches to influencing and guiding others?

But for all the variations, there are commonalities.

Leaders are able to transform inspirational ideas into reality, build partnerships, and generate confidence and consensus along the way.

Now, let’s look at the required skills of the person responsible for the successful management and delivery of their project.

Take a proposed solution and organize the work so everyone understands what’s needed, guide the project so everyone understands what’s happening, help the team do the work, and deliver the sprint, phase, or end product.

One quote is aspirational and achieved through strategic thinking, the other is operational and achieved through strategic planning. Leadership’s imagination and creative problem solving is executed by management’s achievable plans and effective operations. Two sides of the same coin, one complimenting the other.

Be the Exceptional Leader Others Follow

Whether you are the person responsible for the project, or a key portion of it, the following applies.

Your job is to help your team successfully deliver the product. On time, in scope, and on budget.

That’s it, pure and simple. It’s a very straightforward job description. Now there’s one more part to add, something you rarely see, and it’s the step that separates the average from the exceptional.

Do it in a way that encourages everyone – you, the team, the client – to want to work together in the future.

It’s this second part, proven through building relationships and trust, being organized, following through on promises made, acting with kindness, that truly solves the problem of why projects fail even though good people are working hard.

We could also flip the definition and start with encouraging everyone to work together and, as a result, the project will naturally succeed. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship between the two parts.

I am an Exceptional Leader. How Does That Increase Project Success?

The fastest and easiest element to change on the project is you. There are no costs involved, no lengthy process improvements and adjustments. No waiting for someone else to make a decision.

The beauty is you can start right now.

So, where to begin?

Understanding that people make the difference. Not process, methodology, or team structure. Hybrid vs Agile methodology makes no odds if the team doesn’t respect each other or understand what they need to do and why. Choosing one planning or storage software over another isn’t going to miraculously fix a broken timeline.

The instructions for how to be an exceptional leader are in the second part of our leadership definition. Do it in a way that encourages everyone – you, the team, the client – to want to work together in the future.

This means that you are someone others trust to make informed decisions, you bring confidence to the project because you provide solutions and follow through on promises made, your communications are concise and unambiguous, your methodology and processes are easy to follow and clearly add value to the project.

People want to work with you because you are seen as integral to the success of the project.

How To Do It

Do the following three things:

  1. Stop the bad practices.
  2. Start Being Helpful.
  3. Consistently behave in ways that keep people coming back for more.

Step one is straightforward. If there is something major that is clearly broken and hurtful to the project, then fix it. Good project managers solve problems at the source so they stop happening.

You can’t fix a creaky house if the foundations are broken. You can’t stop your farm animals from escaping if the barn door is wide open.

Step two starts with answering three simple questions.

  1. How can I make this project successful?
  2. How can I encourage others to [insert desired behaviour/action from question #1]?
  3. What barriers need to be removed for this to happen?

The final step is the most important. Consistency. Nobody wins if you only show a single flash of brilliance. Repeating positive behaviours turns them into normal, easy to do habits. When your team sees you repeatedly acting in positive and helpful ways, they will follow suit and do the same, starting their own improvements.


In the following example, our project is behind schedule, deadlines are routinely missed, scope creep is common place, morale is low, and senior management is frustrated with the progress.

1. Stop The Bad Practices

There are several critical problems here, missing deadlines and team conflict for example, but the driving issue is scope creep. Solve that and the other parts will fall into place.

Why focus on scope creep? You can’t stop the flooding if you don’t fix the leaky faucet.

2. Start Being Helpful

Ask yourself the three questions:

  1. How can I make this project successful?
  2. How can I encourage others to [insert desired behaviour/action from question #1]?
  3. What barriers need to be removed for this to happen?

How can I help the project be successful?
I can help the project be successful by building a complete set of accurate requirements that everybody can buy-in to.

If you’re not sure how to answer the question, there are two other ways to look at it. What problems do I need to solve, or, what can I do to help my team be successful?

  • What problems do I need to solve? The biggest is scope creep because it shows the list of requirements is incomplete and there is no clear understanding as to what work needs to be done.
  • What can I do to help my team be successful? I’ve noticed my team hits their deadlines more often when they know exactly what they need to do, how to do it, and understand how their work impacts other parts of the project.
  • To help them, I need to build a complete set of accurate requirements that everybody can buy-in to.

How can I encourage my stakeholders to tell me all the requirements?
How can I encourage my team to give me achievable estimates?

Get out of your chair and talk with people. If you’re remote, at minimum pick up the phone. Video is preferable. The important thing is you are relationship building face to face and creating a level of trust.

Involve your team experts and key stakeholders as you organize and create your plan. Having the right people at the table helps generate consensus around priorities, deadlines, and how to build the agreed upon functionality.

Participation encourages buy-in and confidence that the new plan is complete and achievable.

What barriers need to be removed for this to happen?
The following lists a number of real-life barriers to gathering requirements and receiving accurate estimates:

  • Cold, lengthy emails and endless surveys
  • Wasteful and unproductive meetings
  • Setting deadlines without thought to existing tasks, deadlines, and resources
  • Making promises and not following through
  • Being intractable in your approach
  • Mixed messages and regularly changing your mind
  • Being difficult to reach

It isn’t an exhaustive list but it gives a good selection of barriers that need to be removed and bad habits that need to be stopped.

OK, that’s steps one and two, Stop The Bad Practices and Start Being Helpful. Now onto step three…

3. Consistently Behave in Ways That Keep People Coming Back for More

Continue to build the relationships with your team, stakeholders, and sponsor. Where appropriate, encourage connections and partnerships between your team and others.

We all enjoy coming to work when we like everyone we’re working with and have pride in our projects.

While you are encouraging everyone to provide requirements and feedback, you are also removing the barriers. Emails are short and concise. Lengthy surveys are replaced by productive phone calls and meetings. Your meetings have a clear purpose and are focused. You follow through on promises made, are flexible in your approach, and coordinated in your planning of work and resources.

You are consistent with your messages – everybody knows what to expect from you and what you are thinking. And you are no longer seen as hiding in your office with the lights off.


  • We have an achievable and accurate plan that everyone has bought into.
  • Scope creep has been eliminated, and if things need to be adjusted they are done so being mindful of their impact on the rest of the project.
  • With achievable deadlines, the work is progressing as expected at a higher quality because there is full understanding as to how everything fits together.
  • With our growing relationships, satisfaction at hitting deadlines and how the project is being managed, morale improves and senior management is confident in the progress and expected outcome.

All from taking a Be Helpful approach and becoming an exceptional leader.

After you have helped the team successfully deliver the product on time, in scope, and on budget, everyone wants to work with each other in the future.

Now go out there and help your projects be successful. Today, tomorrow, and the days after that.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash