Management Articles


Why Projects Fail

By: Ruth Haag

Ruth Haag ( is the President and CEO of Haag Environmental Company, a hazardous waste consulting firm. Ruth is also a business management consultant. She trains supervisors to identify their shortcomings and tame them, while creating management systems that focus on their employees rather than themselves.She is also the author of several books, including a four-book series on supervisory management which includes Taming Your Inner Supervisor, Day to Day Supervising, Hiring and Firing and Why Projects Fail. She and her partner, Bob Haag, host the weekly radio show Manage Living, which can be heard on-demand on her site.

It seems that a capable leader, a trained staff and a goal with a “clear simple message” should make any project successful. Yet, we all know that some projects fail. Why? Could someone want them to fail?

Two-Thirds of Us Want Success

 When we think about the people in our work environment, we recognize that not everyone is alike.

 Some people are very brash and forceful. No matter what the topic, they instantly have an opinion. These are the people who are good at getting projects started. Their brash fearlessness makes them able to begin anything.

There are other people in our work environment who are meek. They generally don’t offer an opinion unless specifically asked. These are the people who are better at keeping a project going. They are good listeners and observers, and can see clear ways to lead well, once someone else has started the project.

A Third Type of Worker Revels in Failure

Now think about another type of person in your office. Whenever there is a problem causing a project to stop, this person seems to be in the middle of the problem. They proclaim how hard they have worked, but someone has let them down. Some vendor didn’t deliver the product on time; some co-worker was supposed to work on the project, but didn’t. This turmoil-oriented type of person often has more illnesses or personal problems than the rest of the office, and the office is very involved in their problems. This type of person is often very close to their superior. The supervisor often touts them as the supervisor’s “right hand.” 

While there are people who may be too aggressive, and some who are too meek, this third type of person really likes being in the center of confusion and commotion. Their goal is not necessarily to have the project fail, but that is often the result. Their goal is simply to have confusion, so they can be a part of solving it. They most enjoy having their supervisor help them solve the problems. 

I have more than one name for them, but let’s call them project destroyers, for now. 

Removing Destroyers Solves Problems

One obvious way to make a project successful is to remove any person causing time-schedule or supply turmoil. If you cannot remove the person, another way is to reduce their role in the project. They should never be handling procurement or outside communications.  

Working with Destroyers Promotes Problems

Often, when new supervisors are faced with a project destroyer, they come to the conclusion that the destroyer is working hard, but the destroyer has too much responsibility assigned to them, and this is why things are going poorly. The supervisor talks to the project destroyer, who agrees that this is the case, and the destroyer promptly requests an assistant to help them with their work. 

The supervisor either decides to provide the assistant, or takes some of the responsibilities away from the destroyer, so that they can “concentrate on important things.” Neither of these actions helps; the destroyer simply creates confusion and failure within the new system. The failures are justified with phrases such as “they [the destroyers] are under confident; they don’t know what their job is; they have been assigned too much work.”

It is impressive to watch how hard others will work to solve the destroyer’s created problems. We had such a person on our staff at one time; he was responsible for our vehicle maintenance. With his hard work, each Monday morning at least one of our vehicles would fail to operate. Most often it was a dead battery. We tried to help him create a checklist for the vehicles. We instructed him to be at the office when the vehicles returned on Friday and to look them over carefully, then get them repaired on Saturday. We decreased his responsibilities so that he could focus on vehicles. We purchased cut-off switches for the batteries, so that they would not be drained over the weekend. Still, at least one vehicle would fail to run each Monday. 

Finally, we got rid of the worker, and our vehicle problems were solved. Vehicles operated again. Our project destroyer had been enjoying his one-on-one time each week with the bosses, discussing the problems with the vehicles. Rest assured, other things have gone better since he left, also.

So, if you are working on a project that seems to be failing, look for the person in the center of the problems. Remove them, or contain their influence, and watch the project succeed.

© Copyright 2008, Ruth Haag

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