Project Failure: A look at Organizational Factors
Sasi Kumar

6 There are many studies and statistics available on the subject of project failure. Cause, effect, and resolution methods and pundits’ foresights are available too. Yet year after year, we see the rate of project failure remains the same or deteriorating further.

Projects fail when they fail to fulfill their mandates. They fail whenever they fail to have a good grip on the constraints, scope, quality, schedule, resources, and cost. Many more factors, unfortunately, bring down even a well-planned project. They include factors related to organizational culture.

Organizational culture
As mentioned by Terry Deal and Allan Kennedy (Corporate cultures: the rites and rituals of corporate life), the so-called ‘process culture’ where organizations tend to be heavily bureaucratic, process-bound, and has slow feedback/reward and low risk, resulting in the following: low stress, plodding work, comfort and security. In a multidimensional and adamantly bureaucratic organization, projects fail not because of the lack of resources, or missing governance processes, or buy-ins from various stakeholders. They fail because of certain intrinsic characteristics of the organization that are, sometimes, not at all conducive towards project growth and success. Process culture sometimes creates disconnect between the various organizational factions. Triple constraints are over extended in these organizations due to their inherent process-bound culture.

Organizational complexity
Organizational culture and complexity most often go hand in hand. Such entities are mostly large, multinational, and government/public sector organizations with several administrative and functional layers. Public sector organizations are especially prone to political will, legislative processes, demands of the tax-paying public and the organized labor unions. Their stakeholder communities are incongruent and disparate with own agendas and demands. Again, it is difficult to manage expectations with many adversarial items.

Agenda driven silos
Presence of multiple and nested silos is another telltale sign of these ‘process culture’ organizations. More or less every functional area is formed into a self-managing silo. Often silos have many reporting styles and linkages creating split and conflicting loyalties. Frequently, these self-gratifying silos have their own agendas. Communication in these types of organization just trickles down hampering a truly collaborative environment. Overall cohesion is absent, and competing agendas create confusion and delays, thus no one sees the complete picture.

Many controls but few yardsticks
In many organizations, the project management landscape is cluttered with too many controls, governance methodologies, and other compliance requirements. Compliance processes are mandated via checkpoints, gates, and several levels of review and approval steps. Additionally, there may be oversight committees, and service management entities to vet the ideas and provide legitimacy even before a concept takes shape as a project. They tend to become cumbersome, complicated, and process-bound, resulting in ballooned budgets, and lost productivity.

Disparaging leadership and disenchanted employees
It is difficult to find true leadership in ‘process culture’ organizations. There are managers managing the mundane affairs in an un-empowered manner. Directionless management and poor leadership create deferred decisions, disenchanted workforce, and delayed projects. According to a survey by, too many meetings are a leading distraction for employees, followed by inefficient team members, office politics, and other jobs, among others.

Diluted accountability and misplaced oversight
In certain ‘process culture’ organizations, responsibility spreads across several levels. This shared responsibility dilutes overall accountability. In spite of a long and arduous path a project takes to cover all the reviews, buy-ins and signoffs, there is no mechanism to ascertain whether the project has complied with all the governance items when it delivers. In certain organizations, there is no yardstick to measure project performance or to check the compliance levels at the end.

Projects must follow defined paths, a prescribed methodology, and adequate checks and balances to be successful. Too many controls usually have a detrimental effect. In order for a project to succeed, there are more factors than money and manpower. It takes strong commitments from various stakeholders, a clearly defined organizational environment, and exemplary leadership.

(Mr. Sasi Kumar, PMP, is an information technology, and project management professional with over 35 years of experience in various capacities)

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