Why Project Teams Fail:  Some Pitfalls to Avoid

by Tom McBride, Partners for Creative Solutions, Inc.


When it comes to projects, teams are often the most effective way to get the job done.  However, commissioning a team takes careful planning and preparation to avoid a host of problems that can lead to failure.   While not intended to be a comprehensive list, here are some pitfalls to avoid.

Inadequate management support – Management commitment is crucial.  Team activities often compete with other duties, and management must ensure that priorities are clear.  Acceptance of team activities is not enough.  Management must demonstrate involvement and sustained commitment.

Lack of focus – Without clear goals a team has little chance of delivering the right solutions at the right time and cost.  A formal project charter will align the team with management’s goals and help the team stay on track through the project.

Weak team leader – There is no substitute for strong team leadership.  While not the “boss”, a leader’s ability to plan, motivate, deal with team problems, apply process, build consensus, get commitments, and overcome obstacles has a tremendous impact on a team’s performance.  Team leadership training should be a prerequisite to taking on this challenging role.  Go to www.pcs-info.com to view a presentation on team leadership training.

Weak team members –Members need to possess both the knowledge and abilities required to achieve the team’s goals. This includes understanding how to be an effective team member.  The most qualified candidates should be chosen as members, but those less qualified can accompany stronger members to gain experience.

Poor process – Projects need a logical thought process, and many teams start without any real plan in mind.  I always encourage team leaders to create a plan (road map) for reaching the team’s goals.  Good plans often include scientific methods, such as Six Sigma’s DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) or PDCA (plan, do, check, act).  While the road map will need adjustment along the way, the team is bound to wander without one.

Lack of an underlying trust – Optimal effectiveness requires trust in both management and fellow team members.  A history of “flavor of the month” programs, unfamiliarity with other members, or bad feelings from prior experiences can lead to a low trust level.  Careful member selection, appropriate team building exercises, strong team leadership, and consistent management behaviors all help fill this void.  


Teams are powerful assets for organizations, but these factors need to be managed to avoid failures.