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Lessons Learned from Failed Projects

Lessons Learned from Failed Projects

Some of the best lessons in life come from failures we experience along the way in the journey in time on this earth.  I have been thinking about this recently and how it applies to projects.  I have certainly learned many lessons from the challenges I have had on projects.  I decided to pose this question to a group of project managers on Linkedin and I thought I would share some of their insights along with my own experiences.  The question I asked was: “What is the most important lesson you have learned from a failed project?”  Although it is clear English is not for first language for some of the responders, here are some of their unedited responses grouped together by concept.

Project Initiation

  • My biggest failure was not defining a solid governance in the PID (Project Initiation Document). That way the board was lacking enough senior suppliers from the business. So when we needed more resources from the business they were not available anymore. (Victor)


  • The Scope of the project must be well-defined and clear to the stakeholders to avoid scope creep.  (Ahmed)
  • Scope creep due to not effectively enforcing change logs and requests. (Robert)
  • Incomplete scope and weak scope management plan. (Atif)
  • You will fail a miserable failure if not able to understand the customer needs and refusing to fulfill his expectations. (Massimiliano)


  • Hofstadter’s law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law. (Kris)


  • Stakeholders have not been on board especially during initiation & planning phase. (Atif)

Documentation / Reporting

  • Always keep a Decision log and great status updates so that if you have a change of Sponsor or company re-organisation you can explain why you are where you are in a programme. The new person may not like what their predecessor has done, but you have it well documented. (Juliet)
  • Assuming that executive stakeholders are reading your status reports. 17 months into an 18 month project, a VP asked me why the project was Red even though I reported weekly that it was Red and why. (David)
  • Based on my experience the most important lesson I’ve learned is to make sure you have complete client requirements. Too often a client will want you to launch a project and they ‘know’ the scope and want you to just implement. It’s important to take time at the beginning of the project to really understand the client requirements.  (Joseph)
  • Commitments, scope changes, MoM (minutes of meetings) should always be documented. (Chandra)
  • Reporting bad news is key to ensuring its success. (Lindsay)
  • Better earlier than later inform your customer of problems. Of course this is something which is not easy to communicate a failure… but not doing it means to bring your customer in even more trouble. (Hannes)

Resolving Issues

  • There’s no such thing as “a small problem” if left unattended… (Eric)
  • Actions should be taken on time and without delay (Ziad)

Project Execution

  • The approach of “we have been doing this way” shall be tested every time, because every project is unique. (Nilesh)
  • If the General Contractor (GC) does not understand the complexity of the project, don’t get involve with him, you will also loose. (Rosaire)


  • Life goes on, head is still on my shoulders and learning’s are deeper and more persistent than in Success Cases. And you need to lose once in a while to enjoy winning even more. (Werner)
  • Use the failure to your knowledge, in the future you will be able to see the same mistake before it happen and you will know the reasons. (Rosaire)
  • No experiment (project) is ever a failure, in that it serves as a perfect example of what not to do next time.  Even a large failure holds great success if we learn not to repeat the same mistakes over and over.  If applied properly, both sets of knowledge are equally important. (Clark)

When I decided to write this blog post, I had a list of lessons I have learned that I was going to share.  After seeing the responses from these experienced project managers, I feel they have summarized my thoughts well.  I will leave any further thoughts about lessons learned from failed projects to you.  Please share in the comments, lessons you have learned from failures in your project management experience.

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