Project Failure? You know it’s hitting the buffers when….

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Project Failure – how do you spot a failing project?

Our in-house PMO expert, David Walton shares his top 3 crucial considerations that allow him to identify when a project is at risk and likely to end in project failure. These critical factors will help you spot the early warnings before it’s too late. So don’t get caught out. Read on and, if you recognise any of the early warning signs, act now!

RAG Status has always been green.

For projects that have been running for a reasonable amount of time, it is normal to expect the overall RAG status to move from Green to Amber or Red as events happen that put the delivery of the project at risk.

Projects are, by definition, unique endeavours so it is not uncommon for projects to have warning lights (Amber) or more serious warning lights (RED).  If you review the history of a project and, over many months, the overall RAG and the underlying sub-RAGS are always Green, this can be a sign that the project is at risk. A constant Green rating could mean 1 of 3 things:

  1. The project manager does not recognize that genuine risks to the project exist.
  2. The project manager recognizes that project delivery is at risk but chooses to hide the fact from the Sponsor and key stakeholders.
  3. The Project is being brilliantly managed and controlled by the project manager.

In my experience, a constant Green RAG status is usually down to a) or b) and therefore there is a high risk of project failure.

The Project Sponsor does not know he or she is the Project Sponsor!

The Project Sponsor is the individual with overall accountability for the project. He/She is primarily concerned with ensuring that the project delivers the agreed business benefits.

The Project Sponsor acts as the representative of the organisation, and plays a vital leadership role through: providing ‘championship’ for the project and selling the project throughout the organisation. The sponsor is also there to unblock blockages to the project and allocate more resources, if required.

In almost every survey on the underlying causes of project failure; the number one cause is lack of effective sponsorship. It is therefore logical that if the sponsor is not aware he or she is the sponsor or, what is more typical, that the sponsor does not understand their role, the project is at risk of failing.

The Project Manager cannot explain what a good project outcome would be.

Sometimes the simple and obvious questions are the best ones to understand what is really happening. I like to ask project managers: ‘So what are you trying to achieve with this project?’

If I get a succinct answer in terms of the benefits and outcome for the organization, I gain confidence in the project manager and the focus of the project delivery team. Alternatively, if I get a long-winded and rambling answer, my confidence starts to wane. Confidence collapses if the project manager says that the outcome of the project is delivery of an IT system. Projects are all about delivering change so if the change management aspects of a project are not addressed, the probability of project failure is high.


I have conducted many project and programme reviews which are more in-depth investigations than the three points detailed. However, with project reviews, you can very quickly understand if a project is on track or heading for the buffers. The rest of the project review is typically gathering the evidence to back up your initial findings.

About Bestoutcome

Bestoutcome specialises in Portfolio, Programme and Project Management (PPM) software and services, always focusing on the overall outcome to ensure successful business change. Our approach is based on delivering specific business outcomes within a uniquely transparent, risk managed and open framework. This is achieved by using highly experienced consultants combined with PM3, a client configurable PMO software and reporting toolset, allied to an outcome-driven project management (ODPM) methodology. Bestoutcome’s starting point is always the client’s ultimate business goal and we never lose sight of this. Bestoutcome’s timesheet software, PM3time is used in many private and public sector organisations for automating timesheet capture and reporting processes. Bestoutcome has completed a significant range of change management assignments for large organisations operating in sectors such as Finance, Manufacturing, Energy, Retail, Public Sector, Insurance and Hospitality. Bestoutcome is ISO27001 Security Certified and our PM3 product range is available to Public Sector clients via the UK Government Digital Market Place Catalogue.

David Walton
About the author
David Walton

I am David Walton, Programme,Project and Portfolio Management specialist and director of Bestoutcome here in the UK. We make the PMO tools PM3, PM3time and PM3change, the only PMO tools designed by practitioners for practitioners.

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