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The budget is approved, everyone agrees on the need, and you’ve possibly even hired a vendor to help you navigate the massive undertaking of the new complex project. Everyone on the team has their idea of “success.”

The looming question: How can you have the assurance that your effort won’t meet the same fate as the 70% of all complex projects that end up failing?

Companies often overlook that statistical elephant in the room.

Here’s why the 70% failure rate happens, and how your projects can avoid the pitfalls.

Defining Project Success

A project is considered successful when reaching the desired outcome within the estimated time frame and budget. The problem is that “real life” inevitably happens, and things that were unknown before the project began become known. When these prior unknowns increase the project scope, we call this “progressive elaboration.”

We’ve seen many projects exceed original completion deadlines and require approved budget increases, yet still be considered massively successful by the client. Likewise, mere adherence to standard guidelines and project structures is often less beneficial once new and critical needs are discovered at any stage of the project. For comparison, consider those pioneers who set out to tame the Wild West and encountered challenges that required adaptation and skills they did not originally anticipate.

We consider a project successful when the client reaps the benefits of new software, system functionality, and efficient processes. Equally significant positive outcomes include an increase in team collaboration, employees prepared to support the ongoing environment, and 100% agreement that every penny spent with our consulting organization delivers a beneficial return on investment.

Top 4 Reasons Why Projects Fail

Failure analysis
After the fog clears following a failed project, an objective review commonly reveals four consistent reasons why projects fail:

  1. Inexperienced project managers
  2. Leadership gaps
  3. Failure to set and manage expectations
  4. Competing priorities

1. Inexperienced Project Managers

While the ability to construct and manage a 10,000-line task list may be beneficial, the real value that a project manager provides is the proven experience in communicating and translating the right message at the right time.

Star project managers know they deliver value by nurturing the entire team to realize their peak performance while working effectively and making good decisions. The successful result is that the organization will outgrow its need for a consultant project manager.

Skills that Help Project Managers Succeed

  • Challenging assumptions (after taking the time to understand the organization’s true objectives and company-specific processes)
  • Improving and energizing the working team
  • Boldly guiding the project through the unknown
  • Ensuring every project participant has a shared understanding

2. Leadership Gaps

Rest assured that employees can sense leadership hypocrisy faster than a dog can smell the neighbor grilling ribs three doors down. Executives often overlook the need for a leadership assessment and alignment when considering a complex project. That’s an unfortunate mistake because it ultimately determine the success or failure of a project.

Projects likely implode or explode without 100% buy-in from the executive team. In fact, leadership is so essential to project success that we have walked away from profitable projects because of half-hearted support from upper management.

Employees can sense leadership hypocrisy faster than a dog can smell the neighbor grilling ribs three doors down.

Project managers or project leadership must know what’s required to complete a project successfully and stand firm on those principles.

3. Failure to Set and Manage Expectations

All project stakeholders are responsible for setting expectations. The primary responsibility rests on the project manager’s shoulders, who manages and sets expectations with a balanced approach throughout the project.

How exactly is this accomplished? The key to success requires communicating project deadlines, requirements, what comes next, and other critical information clearly and often, and in a way that fosters shared understanding.

Effective communication of expectations involves expertise in crafting the message so that the audience has the common ground needed to make decisions.

4. Competing Priorities

Competing priorities
Employees excel doing the typical jobs they are trained to do. And when taking on a complex system, employees require new skills and expertise far different from everyday responsibilities.

If the decision is made to manage a project internally, employees often must manage their primary responsibilities while taking on unfamiliar responsibilities as a project manager or supporting role.

When you’re juggling work that requires vastly different skill sets, some of that work usually suffers.

Complex system conversions require experienced employees – those who know and perform these processes daily – to provide project-defining information. This time-consuming project requirement occurs only every 10-20 years.

If you do not have the proper alignment of resources with tasks, and additional support for those essential resources, your project becomes a recipe for failure.

How Can You Ensure Project Success?

Layering a complex project on top of existing staff responsibilities creates a perfect storm for failure. Since a transformative business project happens maybe once in a career, the skills and muscle memory often don’t exist.

Engage an Independent Consulting Firm

Vendors market their products to look good and believe their solution works seamlessly for any client. In reality, every organization requires unique solutions for achieving business goals and working efficiently within core processes. Insurance carriers, among others, benefit from a third-party consultant who serves and respects the company’s interests while accounting for project time, budget, and scope.

The external consultant can commit necessary resources to manage a complex project free of internal politics.

Prepare and Plan

Success requires preparation, much like an explorer identifies resources and possible contingencies.

  • Vendor selection may be one of the first stumbles out of the gate. Choosing a vendor may not be unanimous initially. However, when business requirements are discussed and ranked by all team members, a clear solution rises to the top.
  • Scope creep is best managed through rigorous and thorough stakeholder discussions  at the beginning and throughout the project.
  • Experienced project managers who understand the pitfalls of the project cycles can more readily prepare team members for the challenges ahead.

Set the Bar High

Hire competent vendors, set clear expectations, and hold them accountable. Projects often require multiple vendors, which showcases the experience and value of an external management team that is skilled at applying structure and systematic methods.

More often than not, companies accept low to minimal quality and performance. Instead of lowering the bar, consider an experienced outside project manager and make sure your dollars are an investment in project success.


Contact TAC4 to discuss managing a complex insurance transformation project. We deliver a 100% success rate and rescue failing projects using a unique process known as Projenomics®.


Donna Grant

Donna Grant has over 20 years’ experience in managing complex projects while preparing, nurturing, and navigating the teams through change.

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