Article Collection

Poor communication causes most project management failures

01 Jun, 2020 Project management

Poor communication causes most project management failures, and have you noticed there is hardly any information available in the communication profession on the skills required to successfully manage projects? Is there a correlation? And almost nothing on the communication aspects of large commercial projects that can worth billions of dollars.

The academic literature hardly contains anything, and PR courses neglect this important aspect of our profession. Yet we are required to manage projects of varying complexity, often simultaneously and usually under time pressure. We look inwardly at communication projects, but the success of commercial projects depends heavily on good communication.

What’s more, most of the time, most business experts fail to grasp the importance of communication to the success of projects of any kind.

I have observed this myself. Over the years, I have seen the way the world’s top management consultants like McKinsey and various project management planners have almost totally ignored communication. And then they only remember it as an afterthought – to be put in place after the ‘real work’ has been done.

Fortunately, experts are slowly starting to realize that communication is the most important element of projects. For instance, in their 806-page book, Project Management Communications Bible, authors William Dow and Bruce Taylor note, “communication is the key to keeping team members, managers and stakeholders informed and on track to pursue the project objectives.” There is a huge amount of practical communication plans, charts, templates and tactics in their book. If you need to understand more about communication for large projects, this book provides some extremely valuable and practical information, including a CD containing templates.

Supposed reasons for project failure

Dow & Taylor, who are vastly experienced in project management, including major work for Microsoft, point to the results of an industry survey in 2007 that attributed reasons for project failure as follows:

50% Poor requirement definition
17% Inadequate risk management
15% Poor scope control
14% Communication problems
3% Lack of qualified resources
1% Other

Real reasons for project failure

Then the authors give what they consider the real reasons for project failure:

2% Poor requirement definition
1% Inadequate risk management
1% Poor scope control
90% Communication problems
1% Lack of qualified resources
2% Other

(This adds up to only 97%; 3% seems unaccounted for in this summary, but I’m sure you get the point.)

Poor communication the root cause of project management failure

The authors believe poor communication is at the core of nearly all project management problems.

An example: during every significant project someone always asks for a report on the project. Usually a report is run off as quickly as possible and people turn back to the project. But a strategic approach should be taken with all such requests for reports. Rather than providing the report immediately, think about asking some important questions:

  • What information does the report provide?
  • What are you trying to achieve with this information?
  • Who needs the report and how will they use it?
  • How often is the information needed?
  • How quickly do you need the report developed?
  • Do you have the budget to develop the report?
  • Does an existing report already provide the necessary information?
  • Which other stakeholders can be included in the distribution of the report to satisfy their needs?

By clarifying the needs of the people requesting the report and other stakeholders, you can save time and money.

Next time someone requests a project report from you, pause to consider these questions.

Further insights from Microsoft about unexpected project pitfalls

In a 2019 article, “6 unexpected project plan pitfalls and how to avoid them,” the Microsoft 365 Team lists further ‘not-so-obvious reasons why a project plan can quickly go awry.’ The first two reasons are IT-related – one of which is about ‘low-end software solutions.’ It just so happens that the Microsoft Team can suggest a Microsoft link where you can read how to solve the problem… Here are the remaining four reasons:

  1. Ineffective juggling of virtual teams.
  2. Weak executive support.
  3. Not aligning with an organization’s goals and strategies
  4. Communication breakdown. “The US Project Management Institute (PMI) found that one of the top causes of project failure reported by companies is poor communication. Fortunately, the latest research indicates that purchasing the right project management software seems to significantly improve internal team communication, as well as communication with clients. The ability to communicate in real time with team members down the hall or across the globe using tools designed to transmit your critical conversations quickly and securely is key to a project’s success.” [And it just so happens that the Microsoft 365 Team can suggest some suitable project Microsoft management software to use…No self-interest at all, is it??]

The essential role of communication

A report published by the US Project Management Institute in 2013 neatly summarized the importance of communication in project success: The essential role of communications: The high cost of low performance. One of the findings in the report was published in a PMI white paper, “Communication: The message is clear,” in 2013 as well, as shown in the image below, which underlines the fact that high performers create formal communication plans for nearly twice as many projects as low performers:

Source: ©2013 Project Management Institute, Inc. Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report: The High Cost of Low Performance: The Essential Role of Communications, May 2013.

Several important points are made in the PMI white paper:

Yet true communication both inside and outside the enterprise walls remains a rare commodity—much of which comes down to a fundamental difficulty in communicating with the appropriate clarity and detail. Sometimes it’s the project manager who can’t stop outlining every single technical step in excruciating detail to the executive committee. Other times it’s the executive unable to translate the grand strategic vision into actual project objectives and scope. Or it’s the sponsor who doesn’t engage with external stakeholders beyond a press release.

…although 62% of business owners and 60% of executive sponsors perceive themselves as communicating strategic alignment and business benefits effectively, only 43% of project managers agree with that assessment.

For their part, project managers and their teams must learn to speak in the language of business. Instead of going into the minutiae of the work breakdown structure, they must be prepared to speak to how the project will deliver results.

To bridge the communication gap, organizations must help everyone learn to say the right things to the right people in the right channels.

Stephan Zoder, makes the same point in a Forbes 2019 article about large projects: “Poor communication is still the primary contributor to project failure.” Zoder says:

Project managers, Six Sigma Black Belt or not, often fall into the trap of talking about their work through their lens. Outside their immediate team, they discuss it in technical or feature-based terms outside. It is equivalent to communicating your state-of-mind with eyebrow raises and expect others to correctly interpret your signals. This is the main reason why poor communication is still the primary driver for project failure and it has not changed in over a decade…all reasons for project failure can partially be boiled down to someone not communicating correctly, timely or at all.

Communicators are not just messengers

When someone from senior management contacts you to say, “We need a newsletter” or “We need a new brochure” or “We need an article on […] in the newsletter,” don’t just take their request at face value. Probe with similar questions to the above list to establish what the real need is. Most of the time they actually need a much more strategic response than the production of simple communication collateral.

Change management

Communication is a vital component of change management programs – because they are largely about project management. My article, “Demand a bigger communication role in change management” offers some insights about change communication.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

Articles, Ideas & Information to boost your career