“Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound.” — James Allen, 1864-1912, English literary man of mystery and unrewarded genius

The smart folks at Vital Smarts and the MIT Sloane Management Review recently released a study on the root causes for the shockingly high failure rate of cross-functional projects and programs. Estimates are that as many as 80 percent of strategic initiatives, IT projects, corporate programs, and the like are awful disappointments. For example, four years ago, the world watched as Gustav Humbert, the CEO of Air Bus, was dismissed from his job in shame when the A380 aircraft missed its delivery date by more than a year. The worst of it was that the announcement of the delay happened on the day the plane was due! Makes you scratch your head in wonder that this information did not seem to be available to Mr. Humbert any sooner than the minute he was supposed to unveil the engineering marvel to the world. What was going on?

The study identified five early warning signs of project failure. How companies handle these five issues predicts with up to 85 percent precision how well they achieve critical results. In fact, if the people at these organizations handle any of these crucial issues poorly, the odds of the project being delayed, of quality being compromised, and of costs escalating are better than 70 percent. Not good.

  1. Fact-Free Planning — Commitments to deadlines and limits on resources are made with little consideration for the real demands of the project.
  2. AWOL Sponsors — The executive sponsor of a project is not leading as s/he should. S/he is not showing up for meetings, holding people accountable, or walking the talk.
  3. Skirting — Powerful leaders bypass agreed upon decision-making processes or quality gates in ways that are allowing scope creep or putting commitments at risk.
  4. Project Chicken — Critical aspects of the project are going over schedule or running over budget and it’s not politically popular to admit it. Instead, people play “chicken”—letting things get closer to the deadline without acknowledging problems.
  5. Team Failures — Key members of the project team are not competent or do not follow through on their commitments.


  • In your project plans, remember to give the right level of focus on the people aspect of the project. Confirm sponsor commitment and what ‘commitment’ means to project success.
  • Make one of the first steps in your project a “Roles and Responsibilities” list. In organizational (or project team) design 101, a fundamental reason why teams don’t work effectively is because it is not clear who is doing what. Make it clear – write it down and discuss with everyone on that list.
  • Raise issues as soon as you identify them. I think we all know that it is much more effective to handle issues when they are spark vs. a full-blown wildfire.
  • Get clear on how people, groups are to be held accountable for this project. This is tricky, but if you get this agreement upfront, it gives you the leverage to question accountability should something go awry.


Adapted from Vital Smarts, 2009.

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