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Who to Blame for Project Failure? Look Up -
Not Down, Not Left, Not Right

by Olin Thompson



Project failure is not a nice topic. None of us want to be involved in a failure. But when a failure occurs, we feel compelled to assign blame. But who to blame and how to avoid the same problems in the future?

For most enterprises, even admitting they have a failure is difficult. But what is a failure? Failure is not that easy to define. Is it when we fail to meet the original project business objectives? Is it when the project is late or over budget? Is it when the software works but does not produce the benefits sought? The answer to all these questions is, maybe. Failure can be many things and the definition is what the people involved think it should be. As a matter of fact, most projects have their objectives or measurement of success redefined before they are declared failures so they can be called successes.

Assigning blame is human; we need to do it to make ourselves feel better. Typically, the vendor or service provider is the easiest to blame -- they cannot effectively protect themselves and blaming the outsiders makes for a practical path. Blaming the outsiders has few political repercussions and it allows the company to avoid facing some potentially ugly realities.

An outside resource, be it vendor or services provider, is key to success, but they cannot make the project a success. The outsiders cannot address internal issues. They cannot assign the right people, make certain the internal project team does their job, have the time they need and resolve many other issues critical for success. Are the outsiders sometimes deserving of the blame -- yes, but it is actually quite rare.

Next on our potential blame list comes the in-house team. These people are a definable target, typically seen as working outside the normal hierarchy. The internal team is critical to success, but they cannot do it alone. The internal team, like the external players lack the power to get things done, they cannot make the project a success.

Who Is Responsible?

Who is responsible for the selection of the outsiders? Who is responsible for the performance of the internal team? The reality is that the person who is most responsible is the person at the top. For most failures, we need to look up within the organization. By top, we mean the person who is responsible for all the departments and people impacted by the project.

If the project is confined to one plant, it may be the plant manager. If it impacts all plants, it may be the VP of Manufacturing. If it impacts the entire enterprise, it is the CEO. Enthusiasm and commitment for a project does not "trickle up" through an organization, it "trickles down". Only the person at the top can set the tone, have enough power to enforce decisions, allocate the resources, resolve conflicts, and give direction to others, whether explicit or implicit. Only the person at the top can create enthusiasm and commitment.

It is not enough for the senior person to "sign the check". They must provide leadership from start to end. The involvement of the senior person is a daily task throughout the project. The amount of time the senior person spends on the project does not have to be high, it needs to fit into many other things that he or she is doing. The senior person needs to reinforce the motivation for the project in their daily actions. They need to let the company know that the project is important and that the business will benefit from the project. Finally, the senior person must let others know that he or she is following the project closely and is aware of problems and accomplishments.

The senior person is responsible for selecting the project leader, a most important role. The project leader must be a full time job for all but the smallest projects. The best person for the job, by definition, cannot be spared from their current role. The senior person must make this person available and make certain that another person is put in the project leader's former position so the project leader can remain full time on the project. The project leader will need the senior person's help in freeing up the right people to be on the project team. Since the best team is cross-functional, only the senior person can work across the organization to recruit the right project team and insure that they have the time available.

To support the project, the senior person needs to know why the project is important and the status of the project. This means working through the benefits, understanding what has to be done to get those benefits and reviewing various status reports. Knowing this information is not the point, communicating and reinforcing it to any and all people is the job of the senior person.

Projects create change and change creates conflicts. The senior person must be ready to resolve conflicts that cannot be settled at lower levels. It also means providing access to the project manager and other key members of the team on an as needed basis.

An Example

An excellent example of the involvement of a senior person comes from a Fortune 500 food company. The project involved implementation of a plant level system in the company's ten US plants. The senior person was the VP of Manufacturing and was named Ben. He had ten direct reports, the ten plant managers. How did Ben support the project?

  • Ben saw the project as related to market share, not systems, not plant management. He continually communicated the importance of market share and how the project would help market share. He also related market share to individual issues like pay, bonuses, plant expansions and closing, etc. Ben personalized the project for the employees.

  • For each plant, Ben came to the plant and chaired the kick-off meeting. At this meeting, he did the presentation about market share.

  • Ben scanned the bi-weekly status reports to stay informed about the accomplishments and challenges faced by the project team and the organization.

  • Ben held weekly calls with each plant manager. The plant managers soon learned that one of his questions would be about the project. The question may be as general as "How's the project going?" or very specific from the biweekly status reports. To quote Ben, "If they know I care, they care."

  • At a wide variety of meetings and in written communication, Ben almost daily reinforced the objectives and discussed the status of the project. Everyone who came in contact with Ben knew that Ben was on top of the project.

  • The project had a monthly newsletter. For each issue, Ben's name was prominent with the lead article attributed to Ben (yes, someone else wrote it, but Ben approved it).

When the project was near completion in one plant, I happened to visit the plant early one morning. While sitting in the cafeteria, I struck up a conversation with a clerk who was also having coffee. When she learned who I was (I was from the vendor) the clerk wanted to talk about the project. When I asked her opinion of the project, she told me, "This is a very important project. We cannot afford to fail. Market share is what drives our company and this project is all about market share." When I heard this, I decided that Ben got an A+ in leadership.


Projects do fail. They fail for many different reasons. But the person at the top of the organization can stop or fix most of these problems before they derail the project. That person is the only one with the power to do so. If you are that person, think about and use your power throughout a project. If you are not that person, maybe you should forward this article to them.


The Author


Olin Thompson, a principal of Process ERP Partners, has over 25 years experience as an executive in the software industry with the last 17 in process industry related ERP, SCP, and e-business related segments. Olin has been called "the Father of Process ERP." He is a frequent author and an award-winning speaker on topics of gaining value from ERP, SCP, e-commerce and the impact of technology on industry. He can be reached at .

Many more articles in Project Management in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2004 by Olin Thompson. All rights reserved.

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