Takeaways on Why Projects Succeed And Fail

Some projects succeed in a spectacular manner and we all know about them and remember them. Heroes are created. Think of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo missions.

Here is Andrew Chaikin talking about what went right with the Apollo missions.

What is not so well known or mostly forgotten is the Soviet Union’s failed attempt at sending humans to the Moon.

There were spectacular blasts on the launch pad.

The Soviet attempt at landing humans on the Moon ended in failure

The Apollo missions were not the only gargantuan and successful projects in human history. The Manhattan Project to develop the first atom bomb was a success in most respects too.

The successors to the Apollo missions — the Space Shuttle program — was a success and more than 100 shuttle missions flew to space with crew and hardware and returned the crew safely to Earth.

There were a couple of failures with the shuttle missions that led to the loss of life of the crew on board Shuttle Challenger and Shuttle Columbia. Those were examples of project management failure or failures in NASA’s managerial structure.

Shuttle Columbia

The Apollo 13 mission was either a failure or NASA’s greatest success depending on who you ask.

For a project to succeed, it needs to have clearly defined goals, targets, and timelines. The project needs to have adequate funding as well and leadership needs to be fully behind it.

The Apollo missions as well as the Manhattan Project had 100% backing from the United States government including the President and Congress. NASA had levels of funding that is quite unimaginable in today’s environment and that today’s NASA personnel and leadership can only wistfully reminisce about.

The main reasons for a project’s failure or the main barriers to a project’s success are rarely technical — rather, they have to do with the particular project management culture in place at the organization.

Competency of technical and engineering personnel and good project leadership are of course essential requirements.

Budget and costs can sometimes be insurmountable barriers to the execution of a project — a crewed mission to Mars is an example. NASA is slowly approaching that ultimate goal with little steps at a time such as performing various experiments in the International Space Station (ISS) such as Scott Kelly’s one-year residence in space and the growing of lettuce in space and recycling of urine into drinking water.

A project needs to be tightly scripted and no scope creep should be allowed. This is something NASA does well in their unmanned missions to the planets such as the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission to Mars and Cassini to Saturn or New Horizons to Pluto and so on.

The project managers — or principal investigators in NASA parlance — know the parameters of a project such as total launch weight of a robotic mission and work within those overall constraints.

Curiosity has an RTG to power its tools and wheels. It is equipped with a bunch of cameras and other stuff but it lacks many other stuff — it doesn’t have a video camera or microphones to record the sounds of Mars. Those are decisions the mission planners and managers took to keep the project feasible and ensure its success.

Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Self-Portrait

Some projects succeed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Initially planned as a 90-day project, the Opportunity rover on Mars continues to do useful scientific work on the surface of Mars more than twelve years after landing on the red Planet.

Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope was initially hobbled as an inadvertent error was discovered in its mirror alignments after launch. However, because of the way it was designed, it was possible to send multiple Shuttle missions to first repair it and then to replace its cameras to give it better and better vision. It continues to amaze us with its pictures to this day.

Pillars of Creation. One of numerous iconic Hubble images

In web design projects, project success or failure depends on many factors including:

  1. Transparency in project pricing
  2. How you define project goals and deliverables
  3. How you do project tracking and risk management.

Here’s how to apply project management principles for successful web development.