Can you give examples of projects that failed due to their project management mistakes? Would be nice to have some internal details about "why?" and "how?".

  • You might enjoy the book "Dreaming in Code", about a team with lots of bright minds, attempting to create a product, and the failures and difficulties they encountered. It might provide some insight and answers.
    – CaffGeek
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 14:09

9 Answers 9


I had a mini-series of such stories run on my blog some time ago:

  1. I Want Them All is about lack of project monitoring, leaving inexperienced PM alone and adding many people late to the project.

  2. Win-Lose Relationship is about ruining relation with client while trying to suck them out.

  3. I Expect You to Stay Late, Headcount is about burning the team out and then doing nothing to save morale or bring people back to the right track.

  4. Don't You Have Own Project to Run is about ignoring help from others and making people frustrated and unwilling to help others.

  • +1 This examples are more real life related, than Denver Airport or Big Dig, not many people have the privilege to serve in projects of that size, but the mayoralty is related to mid-small size projects. Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 18:56

Mythical Man Month - several essays based on big project failures. There's one example quite curious mentioned in Chapter 7. This example actually was taken from another book... the Holy Bible: The Babel Tower. Main failure? Lack of communication.

Some other valid project failures (at some level, not completely failures) are the Denver Airport mess or Boston Big Dig.


A large project I worked on failed for basically "being stealth."

Management was unable (unwilling) to add the project to the company's project list, so the budget was carved out of slices of various departments' discretionary spending. The thought was that once we delivered the product, then everything would work out.

As a result, we couldn't talk about the project with anyone else to get help or learn what other groups were doing. We lived in a schizophrenic state where we knew what we were doing, but had to lie to senior management constantly.

Finally the deadlines grew short and our management panicked because we weren't going to have time to deliver. They threw a whole bunch of people at the problem (Death March, Mythical Man-Month and Peoplesoft be damned) and had us race like mad. We predictably fell flat with the finish line in sight, but all the chits had been cached in and bridges burned, so there was no way to ask for more time or money.

All told, we ended up with 6 large product specification binders, a lot of code (now lost) and a bunch of people on the street.

Lessons learned:

Run away as fast as you possibly can if the following exist in your project

  1. Project isn't officially sanctioned
  2. Project isn't officially funded
  3. There is no business plan signed-off by the sponsor
  4. The project sponsor disappears for weeks or months at a time
  5. The project sponsor is not involved in/does not care about the project
  6. You are not allowed to talk about the project with anyone not on the project team (obviously doesn't apply if you work for a defense contractor ;)
  7. You are required to lie about project status to the sponsor and/or stakeholders


  • Change management/control is absolutely essential for large projects
  • Steven McConnell is a Software PM God.

London Ambulance Service computer aided dispatch system in the early 90's is a well known disaster, on all levels (management, technical, etc etc).



For me, the worst example of management is a "project manager" telling a team member something like "I'm not interested by your problems, just get it done". This shows really a PM not doing his/her very job.

  • The question is about specific examples.
    – yegor256
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 15:15
  • 1
    I've seen that a lot. Sad, but true... Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 15:24

In the case of the Denver airport baggage handling system, the engineering managers said "projects of this size take 4 years to build and debug." The sales managers said "the airport opens in 2 years, so we promised them it would be finished in 2 years and that's what the contract says." The system was finished 2 years after the airport opened.

Because the sales managers had more clout, there were no alternatives to handling bags while the system was not fully operational (it never really was "operational" in the sense of "works as intended"), so there was no way to handle bags in a parallel system (when the conveyer belts were stopped, what was in the tunnels was stuck for hours or days) and no way for humans to fix things while the airport was open (there was no room for people to access the tunnels except on the conveyer belts).

The perceived delay in getting the system operational and the media attention it got sank the division of BAE that made these sort of systems.

I think this failure serves as a litmus test to determine if someone is a mismanager or not. Re-read the first paragraph and answer for yourself "was the project completed on time or was it late?"

  • Happens all to often in business. The downside is that an airport affects A LOT of people, and is a very visible "failure".
    – CaffGeek
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 21:40

The PM not understanding the toolset they have to work with. I saw a PM modify a standard corporate budget spreadsheet to account for a two year project. Unfortunately he did not understand the internals of the spreadsheet and he seriously overran the project because six months of budget data in the middle of the spreadsheet were not getting added to the project.

Lesson: always understand your tools and if you don't, check any changes with someone who does.


Business @ the Speed of Stupid: How to Avoid Technology Disasters in Business has quite a few examples but most of them have been made anonymous so they don't match your needs. It does make for very good reading, though.


When I began my first project a friend sent me this, and it really stirred my imagination and while it is full of general observations and conjecture, it is still a decent example of a failed project.

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