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David Ratledge 


How to Fail at Projects

David Ratledge

Technology work tends to be very project-based, whether it is upgrading all computers to the newest operating system, implementing a new catalog or discovery system, or custom-programming an application on which to base a new library service. There are many complex milestones and associated tasks that must be completed by certain times and in a certain order to successfully complete a given project.

On the surface it may seem that successfully completing a project is primarily a matter of common sense and making sure the right things get done at the right times. There is a great deal of truth in this, but reality is never that simple or straightforward. I have managed many projects of varying levels of complexity in my career and there are several specific all-too-common things I have identified that are, in my opinion, project killers.

Lack of Clear Goals and Specifications

One of the first and best ways to fail at a project is when those involved do not understand or agree on exactly what needs to be done and why.  A project requires calling into play specific knowledge and skills along with other resources such as time and equipment and often money to perform specific tasks in specific ways in a specific order that culminates in the end with a specific outcome. It is often said that “the Devil is in the details” and this is absolutely true with projects. Only having a vague notion of what is to be achieved and how it is to be achieved almost always guarantees failure.

Not Understanding the Time or Resources Required

Every project is unique and will require different resources and time to complete. Estimating this accurately for every project is critical but very difficult to do. Even when the estimate would have been correct had the project gone according to plan, nothing ever goes according to plan. Life happens and Murphy’s Law gets invoked and dogs really do sometimes eat homework, so there is no way to anticipate in advance when things may suddenly go over a cliff. Even minor glitches add up quickly. Regardless of how hard it is or how imperfect it will always be, not doing the best job possible estimating the time and resources required to complete a project will result in failure.

Inadequate Communication

Everyone involved in a project has an important part to play. While most of the time most project members will focus on their individual work, it is still extremely important that regular communication occur between project members. Everyone needs to understand the interdependence between themselves and other project members and how their work contributes to the overall effort.

Scope Creep

Even when a project has been clearly defined with exacting specifications and defined outcomes, scope creep can still occur. This is where new ideas are introduced while a project is being worked on that forces the specifications and already agreed-upon final outcomes to change. Sometimes a little of this cannot be helped. The real world is messy and there can be perfectly valid reasons why a project needs to be modified after all the details have been worked out and people are working hard to complete work in accordance with those details. But, one should aggressively try to hold scope creep to a minimum; otherwise, things will quickly get out of hand and lead to failure. Scope creep can turn a project into a dog race where everyone spends all their time running as hard as they can together but in a never-ending circle trying to catch a moving target that is always just out of reach.

Designate a Project Manager

Not having a designated project manager can doom a project to failure. There always needs to be someone with both the “big picture” view of the overall project, as well as detailed knowledge of each step along the way so they can choreograph the project work from beginning to end. This leaves all of the other project members free to concentrate on the parts of the work they are needed for. Without a good manager, a project can meander all over the map for years doing a lot of work that never really goes anywhere, or it can get to 97% complete but never go that last 3% so the benefits of all the work can be enjoyed.


There are many ways to fail at projects. None of us want to do that, however, and fortunately, most failures can be avoided by combining a clear understanding of what is to be accomplished with careful planning and enough discipline to see it through to completion. This will ensure that if project failure does occur, it will be for reasons that are truly unavoidable.


David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head of Systems at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at 




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