Why Study Failures?

There has always been a fascination with the study of project failures in the project management literature. And perhaps the reason is that we not only find these failures interesting but that every project failure carries with it at least one practical lesson for helping project managers improve their project management skills.

There are several challenges in studying project failures.  The first is that failures, for many reasons, are underreported. The second is that it is difficult to find a collection of project failure case studies in one place. The third is that it is often difficult to draw general conclusions from one case study so that its lessons can be applied to other projects in the same or different industries.

One of the goals of this site is to address these challenges.

Here, you will find a collection of case studies that focus specifically on project failures: Columbia Shuttle, Denver’s baggage handling, Viewtron, Merck’s Vioxx, and many more.  But in addition, you will also find an analysis of why these projects failed and what lessons we have learned from these experiences.

The case studies are brief. You can read each one in five minutes.  While there is no attempt to include all of the details that should accompany a more complete study, the objective here is to provide just enough detail to illustrate the lessons.

But how is it possible to draw general conclusions from project failures across many companies and across many industries?

There is no question that at the detailed level each project failure is unique. Columbia suffered from a management culture that emphasized speed and cost at the expense of safety, Denver baggage handling suffered from a very challenging technical problem, and Merck’s Vioxx suffered from the complexities of data analysis and reporting.

By taking the view from 30,000 feet, however, we can begin to reach some general and uncluttered conclusions about the events that led to a project’s failure.  And it is these generalizations that can provide us with a real leaning opportunity; an opportunity to build one’s own framework useful for avoiding the pitfalls that can sabotage the next project.

In addition to inviting you to read the case studies presented here, I also invite you to send me your case studies and if appropriate, I will be pleased to include them on this site. Please send me your proposal.