Some time ago I was involved into a so called death march project. In spite of the Brook's law, I was hired when project was in the yellow zone. Several weeks after I started on my new job, I've been asked and pushed to work overtime even though I didn't have chance to get a grip on the project (actually, it was a probationary period). Even though I didn't have the whole picture of the project, almost from the beginning I started to realize that project was savagely mismanaged.

Not diving into the causes of mismanagement (there are chances that several unpleasant risks might have been triggered all at once putting project into the yellow zone and manager just had to cut the corners), I would like to know what is the project management's ultimate responsibility for the failed project? There's been a discussion about whether it worth considering project failed or not. But let's assume that top-level decision has been made and this decision makes it clear that project has failed. What will be the responsibility/punishment of project manager for the failure then? Probably this should be covered before project is started (even written down, sealed, signed, whatever), but what if the responsibility for the failure has not been discussed and agreed? What is the default option in this case?

Possible answers are:

  • Damaged reputation (both person and company)
  • Dismissal
  • Shutting down the project
  • Torments of conscience

But that seems to be in some way incomplete and each solution might not be applicable in many cases.

Maybe project manager is not the only person who should be responsible for the failure? If not, then who else? Team as a whole, architect, business analyst lead, qa lead? How the responsibility could be shared in this case? After all, who decides?

I would like to get a clear understanding of how to deal with project manager who failed the project due to the mismanagement. Are there any best practices or any case is individual? Should there be some kind of investigation done by upper management in order to reveal mismanagement? If there are some generally accepted measures against people responsible for failure, especially project managers, I would like to hear it from you.

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    Who cares "who" the problem was, unless it was gross incompetence. Look at "what" the problem was, and learn from the experience.
    – CaffGeek
    Feb 9, 2012 at 17:55
  • @Chad: right, I want to know what happens with the PM if he is the problem, he is the one who shows more incompetence than anybody other. Imagine that such nasty person even dares to look for scapegoat being more responsible for the failure than anybody other. How to deal with such people?
    – altern
    Feb 10, 2012 at 18:45
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    it's not "he", it's the actions "he" chose to make. The "what" should identify those actions. "He" can either choose to accept, correct them next time. "He" can be replaced or moved to a position of his abilities. Or, you can quit and work somewhere that values ability, not politics.
    – CaffGeek
    Feb 10, 2012 at 18:59
  • 1
    > you can quit and work somewhere that values ability, not politics actually, that's what I did. I quit. But I'm still concerned. I do not want to participate in the project doomed to be failed due to the PM's incompetence.
    – altern
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:10
  • Ask to change projects?
    – CaffGeek
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:46

8 Answers 8


Who is responsible? The Project Manager. Either the project succeeds, or he has left a clear and well understood communications trail on what was needed that is missing. Ultimately the PM has to do what it takes or go down trying. Many things are out of the PM's control, but the PM who stops as soon as soon as blame can be passed is not even half a PM. The PM may not have enough resources, knowledge or empowerment, but if not them, then who?

What to do? This depends on the nature of the task, culture of the organization and cause of failure...

  • If you hang the PM after every failure, you will find your best folks taking easy projects or leaving.
  • If the task was insurmountable and the PM did everything correct, give them another shot.
  • If the project failed, but had sufficient warning and was under control on the way down, you may reward them.
  • If it was due to poor skills or job mismatch, train or reassign.
  • If it was neglect or poor ethics, let them go.
  • 1
    Best answer so far!
    – altern
    Feb 11, 2012 at 21:48

Well there are a couple of ways to approach this:

First you can take the attitude that the Captain always goes down with the ship and that he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on his watch.

Lots of places take this approach, great for everyone but the PM since that can smugly say that it's not their fault. This however really doesn't help or get the origination to a better place.

The other approach is do engage in root cause analysis.

Root Cause Analysis is any structured approach to identifying the factors that resulted in the nature, the magnitude, the location, and the timing of the harmful outcomes (consequences) of one or more past events in order to identify what behaviors, actions, inactions, or conditions need to be changed to prevent recurrence of similar harmful outcomes and to identify the lessons to be learned to promote the achievement of better consequences.

The practice of RCA is predicated on the belief that problems are best solved by attempting to address, correct or eliminate root causes, as opposed to merely addressing the immediately obvious symptoms. By directing corrective measures at root causes, it is more probable that problem recurrence will be prevented.

Think of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, where the rubber O-rings failed in the cold weather. In this case NASA suspended space shuttles for 32 months to determine what really went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

The house committee concluded "the fundamental problem was poor technical decision-making over a period of several years by top NASA and contractor personnel, who failed to act decisively to solve the increasingly serious anomalies"

So in your case, the real question is does your organization have a sincere desire to improve which will permit them to examine the systemic problems that doomed the project to failure before you were even hired or are they like most firms who would simply prefer to blame it all on the PM?

  • root cause analysis has been made. result is that PM and his incompetence is the root cause of the failure (a lot of money has been spent without any output even though it is not that difficult to produce at least something). what step would be next?
    – altern
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:19
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    altern: No way is that an accurate root cause, you can't be serious?
    – JonnyBoats
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:23
  • I would not be so serious if I didn't face such situation in real life! A little bit earlier I would not believe it either.
    – altern
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:36
  • altern: Well lets consider something else, is this the first time a project has not come in on time and within budget in your organization? If not, was it always the PMs fault in all other cases? Were there no organizational issues?
    – JonnyBoats
    Feb 10, 2012 at 20:33
  • I cannot tell about the organization and its past projects because I was a new employee. I can only say that company is respected among clients and local community. Probably it manages to deliver projects on time and within budget most of the time. But project I participated in has failed for some reason and as far as I can tell, one of the main reasons was PM incompetence. There were a lot of bureaucratic issues on the customer side though. It had its negative effect on the project, but bureaucracy seemed to pale in comparison with local mismanagement.
    – altern
    Feb 14, 2012 at 10:43

Best way to deal with a "failed" project manager is to

  1. Give him a chance to provide an honest post mortem and extensive analysis of the reasons which lead to the failures

2.Give the people responsible(and accountable) for those failures to explain themselves

3.Give the management leaders a chance to lay down a road map in front of the people in 1 and 2 above , to make sure that the holes are plugged and improvements/changes are made


  1. Pulling the plug on the project or the project manager until organization leaders have fully understood the reasons and given the points/people of failure a chance to redeem .

Responsibility: The project manager is responsible for the operational aspects of the project delivery. The project board has the overall responsibility. If a project fails that is also where the responsibility is.

Turn-arounds: When taking over a project in the "yellow" managing stakeholder perception accordingly is key. Turn-arounds are challenging and have increased risks.

Risk/Rewards: To be fair, one cannot expect to earn the credentials of saving a project if this person is not ready to take the risk of the consequences if the project fails. There is the risk that a scapegoat is needed. Politics are reality. I always say: A successful project has many fathers; a failed project has only one mother.

Learning organisation: Now punishment is something different. An organisation should assess why a project failed and learn from it. If in the course of this assessment the project manager’s capabilities and skills are found to be below a certain threshold then this should raise some further questions and likely lead to clear consequences. On the other side you have learned a great deal and this could help the next project.

Finally you have to consider your credibility within the organisation and if to stay or maybe to move on.

  • You mentioned the case of politics. And it seems to be very close to the situation I described in my question. I want to know what happens with the PM if he is the problem, he is the one who shows more incompetence than anybody other. Imagine that such nasty person even dares to look for scapegoat being more responsible for the failure than anybody other. How to deal with such people? In politics such people eventually turn out to become 'political corpse'. But how this works in project management?
    – altern
    Feb 10, 2012 at 18:51
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    altern: You need to approach this as a failure of systems rather than a failure of an individual. If someone is hired who is incompetent it is not the fault of the person hired but rather a failure of the system used to vet new hires.
    – JonnyBoats
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:28
  • @ altern Cannot judge the PM. Know nothing about the project or the person. There should be a a fact based assessment. As a small advice. Negative feelings (e.g. nasty person) tend to fall back on you. Further if you do not like to be blamed, do not start blaming yourself. As said, you migth consider moving on and get a new start. Will not comment my views on real politics as this would certainly not be aligned with the policies of this website. Feb 16, 2012 at 14:25

Question can be looked at in two ways, if you are the program/project manager in questions, if you are above the PM in the management chain.

If you are the PM: The short, painful, answer is "you are responsible." Why? Because ethics say so. I wrote a blog on this (The Responsible Authority Gorilla), which delved into us PMs being in a leadership role even if we don't have the authority of a functional manager. If we are going to be in a leadership role, then we need to act like leaders and leaders don't look for scape goats.

This is not to say we should fall on our swords without a word spoken. It is also our responsibility to guide the team to doing that root cause. What failed, why, how do we not make it fail in the future?

A failure, well addressed and faced head on can be your greatest success.

If you are the PM's boss: You are responsible for the failure as much as your PM is. Same rules really apply. If you've been working with your PM like a responsible manager then you'll know if the failure is due to incompetence or to the mass of events.

Don't shoot the messenger.

Agile A closing note is on agile and retrospectives. In agile the value is looking forward. How do you make the next time better. Don't conduct a witch hunt and try and find someone to blame. Instead get everyone moving towards how to make it work better the next time.


It depends on how it failed and it depends on the metrics against which the project was measured that caused the value judgment of "failure" to be applied.

We generally speaking are a very results oriented. How we get there seems to be secondary. Yet, in all cases, the results are dependant upon what we do.

The stochastic nature of our work is minimized or ignored. The awesome results luckily achieved through marginal performance are hailed and revered while less than great results despite stellar performance are deemed a failure.

If I were evaluating a PM's performance where the project came up short, I would look at what (s)he did. I would look at the planning, the controls, the risk management capabilities, the communications. All of these things would yield evidence of the degree of control (s)he had. If the project proved to be under control, then capture the lessons learned and move on. Remember, success is a crappy teacher.

It comes down to the prediction of success. What people do is a better predictor of future success than what results were achieved.


Project Manager has two responsibilities :

  1. Make best use of the ressources allocated to the project
  2. Provide visibility on the project progress

If PM does not do that, he is (at least partially) responsible for project failure.
If he does that, I would be glad to keep working with him.

( comment :
PM cannot make suicide of the project. It is the PM's boss responsibility to periodically assess project viability and decide whether to carry on, stop, change PM, allocate resources, etc ...
PS: I leave aside discussions on initial workload evaluation, although it has a clear impact on project difficulties. That is a full topic by itself.


It is very rare that the failure of a project relies only on the shoulders of one person. However, human nature often trys to find a person on whom to put all the responsabilities of the failure. It is easier to manage. We can fire that person on not give him or her a promotion. But that is what we call the scapegoat who is lost in power conflicts and battles. That seems pessimistic, but that is the behavior I witness the most in my career and personal life. Understanding the failure of a project or of a part of it is a complexe analysis than many want to avoid because if we find something that went wrong we are in a way obliged to fix it. Most of the time the failure relies on a not well adjusted procedure that people applied by the book.

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