Why projects fail in professional services – and what you need to do about it

Posted by: Anna Murphy /

More than half of all projects are delivered past the deadline or over budget.

For most businesses, that’s a big enough problem as it is. But for professional services businesses — marketing agencies, IT consultancies, managed services — that’s an even bigger problem.

Because when you’re managing a professional services project, you’re responsible for your client’s business too. If a project is late or over budget — a marketing campaign doesn’t launch on time, data migration costs spiral out of control — it takes an immediate toll on your client’s business. And this directly affects the way your client feels about your business.

But getting all the moving parts in the right places can be tricky. There are any number of reasons why projects fall behind schedule, run over budget, or simply fail to meet expectations.

What they all have in common, though, is that every one of these reasons results in a less than perfect outcome for your client — and, in turn, hurts your relationship with them.

Identifying the problems is the first step to solving them. Here are the top reasons why professional services projects fail.

Poor communication

More often than not, a project fails because the definition of success isn’t clearly articulated. When teams don’t know the goal they’re aiming for, it’s easier for them to miss the target.

At the project level, all too often, teams don’t know where to direct their questions, turning communication into a chore — emails and chats go to the wrong people and questions turn into messy, time-consuming threads. When communication breaks down like this, team members stop seeing the job at hand and instead see a series of unanswered questions that stop them from doing their job.

When your goal is to move quickly and do great work, poor communication can hold the entire team back from doing their job.

Scope creep

Scope creep is near impossible to avoid, and often out of your control. In fact, 52% of all projects completed in the past 12 months experienced scope creep or uncontrolled changes to the project’s scope.

This is especially true in professional services. (In fact, we’ve talked about it before — back when our founders ran a web agency, they named “allowing scope creep” as one of their top 12 mistakes.)

It’s a real problem, particularly as the rate of technology increases. Say you’re building a new customer chat tool, for example. When you started the project six months ago, artificial intelligence (AI) wasn’t even a thing. But now your client doesn’t just want a chat tool, they want one with AI in it.

The goal posts have moved and the benefits that you’re delivering are diminished. This leaves you stuck between an unhappy client and an unrealistic expectation.

A lack of transparency

Managing a project to a budget and timeline is hard enough, but when you can’t even see all the parts, or how those parts fit together, it’s nearly impossible. And there’s no way you or your team can see how the work fits with the overall goal of the project.  

To compound things, teams often work across multiple tools — a spreadsheet here, an instance of project management software there. Storing information in different tools makes gauging a project’s health difficult and time-consuming. Plus your time is spent updating spreadsheets and redistributing information rather than solving real project issues.  

Without an accurate, timely view of your team’s  performance on particular tasks, it’s near impossible to manage deadlines and allocate resources across projects.

And when information isn’t available — your team doesn’t know where to find it or who to ask — entire days can be wasted just figuring out what to do.

Limited resources

A lack of resources can quickly undermine the way any project is managed. Without a strong grasp of the people and skills available to you, and an understanding of what team members are working on all of the time, priorities are often mismanaged.

Team members are moved to work on what they consider “more important jobs” or you end up with the new grad working on a critical job.

Lack of alignment between teams

Collaboration is complex. And this complexity is often down to distance, misaligned goals, and people. No matter the reason, when teams aren’t on the same page about how to approach a problem — or they have divergent goals — the chances a project will succeed drop significantly.

What you can do about it

Realizing that you have a problem sucks. But it’s so much better than having a problem and not realizing it.

To help you identify the pain points for you and your team, try the following exercise. Think about the last three projects you’ve been a part of that didn’t go well. Then list the reasons you feel that those projects struggled.

Now ask other people who worked on those projects to do the same thing.

Compare notes. Do you see a common theme? Do different people or sub-teams have different issues? Are you seeing lots of small details going awry, or an overarching structural issue you need to address?

Most of the time, it’s a mix of everything. That’s why we believe in big picture project management.

Big picture project management is about taking care of the details — like tasks and timings — so you can focus your energy and creativity on delivering the work that your clients love.

And that’s also why we put together Big Picture Project Management 101, a practical workbook with advice, info, and exercises, to help you hone in on how you can improve your projects and deliver more for your clients.

Check out the workbook for more. In the meantime, we’d love to know — what do you think is the biggest culprit behind failed projects? And what do you do to avoid it?

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Anna Murphy
Content marketing specialist

5 Comments

Kyle

This article was very helpful but would be even better with some more examples of the issues discussed. I understood a lot of the concepts but would have liked more examples to explain the issue in another light. Keep up the great work!

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Anna Murphy

Thanks Kyle! So glad you liked it 🙂 We go into a bit more detail in the workbook but please do let me know if there’s still something not covered there that you’d like to see more of!

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