Project Management Institute

The blame game




The number of factors that can push a project toward failure is almost limitless. An unrealistic schedule, budget shortfalls, scope creep, even internal politics can wreak havoc on—or ultimately doom—a project. Sorting out the root cause of the problem amid the wreckage of a failed project isn't always easy, though, and oftentimes the finger of blame gets pointed at the most convenient scapegoat: the project manager.

While it may be easy to saddle the project manager with the blame for failure—the job title alone implies ultimate responsibility—the true reasons for an undesirable outcome usually run deeper than just one person.

Project management analyst firm Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd identified 29 commonly cited reasons for project failure and found that only seven fell exclusively in the realm of project management. The other 76 percent came under the purview of the organization's general and executive management.

The line between success and failure—and, in turn, profit and loss—is razor thin, and identifying the correct problematic project leaders makes a difference on the bottom line. Conversely, finding the true source of failure can prevent organizations from unwittingly pinning the blame on valuable talent.



Legendary statistician and management consultant William Deming famously said systems or processes cause 95 percent of problems in business, and people cause just 5 percent.

If the processes leading up to a project's launch are flawed, then there's only so much a project manager can do, says Thushara Wijewardena, chief project officer at software developer Exilesoft Ltd, Colombo, Sri Lanka. “Project managers are not gods, and none of the estimation methods I know of are 100-percent accurate enough to define budgets or timelines accurately at project initiation,” she says.


If a project fails because of a shortage of human resources or a drop in funding from the organization, for example, pinning the fault on the project manager is a mistake.

—Simon Harris, PMP, Logical Model Ltd,
Edinburgh, Scotland


In some situations, such as in matrix organizations where team members report to functional managers rather than to project managers, the latter has considerable responsibility but little authority.

While the project manager is responsible for the team's day-to-day execution, executive management and the project sponsor are responsible for ensuring that the project manager has the necessary resources, tools and policies to do the job, says Simon Harris, PMP, director of consultancy Logical Model Limited in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He argues that the project manager is responsible for many things, including leadership, but the sponsor is always ultimately accountable for the success of the project. It's the sponsor who must have the authority, skill, will and ability to enforce the project manager's direction, reallocate resources and resolve conflicts above the project manager's level of influence if projects are to succeed. If a project fails because of a shortage of human resources or a drop in funding from the organization, for example, pinning the fault on the project manager is a mistake.

When a mistake or failure occurs, two steps must be taken: finding out who was responsible and asking what can be changed to prevent a repeat. Thoughtful organizations perform project postmortems to discuss and document the process after the fact, and develop ways to improve the next project.

These postmortems must include everyone involved on the failed project. “One common problem is that retrospectives are done in isolation,” says Ms. Wijewardena. She recommends post-project discussions that embrace the customer, management and the project team; she also suggests sharing the lessons learned openly with other teams.

In the aftermath of failure, organizations should focus on the project details: resource allocation, phase schedules and budget items. Pin down who was responsible for the action items that went awry. The final report should consist of the project overview, original objectives, final schedule and budget, what went right and wrong, and a list of action items.


The project manager can still make poor decisions or exhibit behaviors that inevitably lead to project breakdown—even when executive leadership does exactly what it should. Several clear signals on a troubled project indicate that the project manager may be letting things slip and necessitate intervention on the part of senior management or the sponsor:

  • Lack of Leadership Skills: “Some project managers lack the maturity, thoughtfulness and leadership skills necessary for their position,” says Naomi Caietti, PMP, enterprise architect, State of California, Sacramento, California, USA. Not listening to all the information being given and not delegating tasks are just two indicators that leadership is lacking, she says. When that starts affecting day-to-day project execution, it's time for a change.
  • Poor Ongoing Planning: Though the project manager may not be involved in the initial planning, he or she is responsible for keeping the project on track. Setting unrealistic expectations and showing a lack of foresight can steer a project toward trouble.
  • Tunnel Vision: Similar to falling into the planning trap, some project managers focus too much on one facet of the project, losing sight of the big picture and end goals. That makes it almost impossible to respond appropriately to changing factors or new ideas.
  • Incompetence: This may be the most obvious one to detect—and the clearest example of when failure should be placed on the project manager. If a project manager is deficient in basic management capabilities, he or she has no business being in that position.

If the project manager is indeed at fault, the next step is determining a course of corrective action. Obviously, if the project manager has been lying or suppressing information that led to an unsuccessful project, then disciplinary action—even termination—is warranted, says Mr. Harris.

In less extreme cases, Ms. Caietti suggests mentoring and coaching. “Executive management needs to show support to the project manager,” she says. “There has to be a conversation, and then the project manager needs to get some training.”

Companies invest a lot of time and money in their project managers, so it's in their best interest to look at failure as a learning opportunity, rather than a reason to terminate. “Failure is one of the hardest things that a project manager will face,” says Ms. Caietti. “Executive management needs to be supportive of project managers when this happens.”

One positive sign for a project manager's future performance is if he or she voluntarily takes the blame for project failure, says Sergey Saltykov, PMP, chief project officer at clothing supplier Savage, Moscow, Russia. “I‘ve worked on projects in different roles, and every time an issue came up, the project manager took all of the responsibility,” he notes.


“Failure is one of the hardest things that a project manager will face. Executive management needs to be supportive of project managers when this happens.”

—Naomi Caietti, PMP, State of California, Sacramento, California, USA


It's easier for project managers to do that when organizational leaders create a culture of responsibility and own up to their own mistakes, too, says Ms. Wijewardena. When executive management steps forward to take some blame for project errors, it creates an environment where it is accepted that no one is perfect, and that anyone can make mistakes. “I haven't met any experienced project managers who have never had a project failure in their careers,” she says.

Whether by running another project or shadowing a more senior project leader for a while, the project manager needs to know that he or she still has the organization's confidence. “You need to get the project manager back in the seat again,” advises Ms. Caietti. “Organizations that understand the concept of failing fast and failing forward—within reason—will grow more mature project managers.”

Ultimately, it may not really matter whose fault project failure is as long as lessons are learned and mistakes are not repeated, says Mr. Saltykov. “In Russia, we say, ‘One caned person is worth two that are not,’ meaning failure teaches success. A bad experience is still an experience.” PM

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