Relating causes of project failure

to an organizational strategic business framework


By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia



An organizational strategic business framework (the Framework)

In the first of my two articles in the last two issues of this journal (Stretton 2017k,l) I discussed the initiation of projects via organizational strategic business planning, which included both deliberate and emergent strategies, as outlined under Stages 1 to 3 in Figure 1 below. In the following article I extended strategic business planning to encompass strategy execution. This included both project and non-project components, again as illustrated in Figure 1 (which has been slightly modified from the original in light of suggestions from early feedback). This strategic business framework shows both the strategic management stages, and the project contributions attaching to them.

Causes of project failure

In this article I want to relate causes of project failure to this framework. In doing this, I will be drawing on a series of articles I wrote earlier in this journal on project successes and failures. In the second article of that series (Stretton 2015a), I assembled quite detailed lists of over forty causes of project failures.

These listings were derived from the rather sparse relevant materials in the project management literature, and I emphasised that these causes of project failure, and frequency of occurrence, did not claim to be necessarily representative of projects at large. Indeed, I strongly argued that there was an urgent need to accumulate comprehensive data on causes of project failure, and I will continue to do so.

However, that article has the only amalgamation of such data that I know of, and, although not necessarily representative, these causes of failure are surely indicative enough to warrant further examination – which is the subject of this article.

There were five main groups of causes of project failure recorded in the earlier article, summarised below, and shown as percentages of the total causes of failure.

Project initiation-related causes of failure                         40%
Project mgt. operational-related causes of failure             30%
Organizational leadership-related causes of failure           15%
Project mgt. leadership-related causes of failure                9%
Other (externally-related) causes of failure                        6%    

In this article I will list all the detailed causes of project failure within each group, and broadly align most of them with the organizational strategic business framework.


The project initiation-related causes of project failure constitute nearly 40% of total causes, and comprise fourteen different causes, many of them repeated in different sources (as indicated in parentheses). Seven of these causes appear to be directly related to high-level strategy formulation and portfolio definition, rather than to the project components of the framework. In Figure 2 below I have represented them in three groups, with a slightly modified strategy colour-code.

The other seven causes can be related to the component projects. These are also represented in three groups, with the lighter turquoise project colour-code.

It will also be seen that in Figure 2 and following figures I have used only key headings to represent the more detailed strategic business framework in Figure 1.


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Editor’s note: Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon), Life Fellow of AIPM (Australia), is a pioneer in the field of professional project management and one of the most widely recognized voices in the practice of program and project management.   Long retired, Alan is still tackling some of the most challenging research and writing assignments; he is a frequent contributor to the PM World Journal.  See his author profile below.

About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


Alan Stretton
is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).  Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published over 180 professional articles and papers.  Alan can be contacted at [email protected].

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.