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10 failed projects and the lessons learned

Every project teaches lessons with its successes and failures. Best practice courses highlight the importance of developing a lessons learned mind-set from the outset of the project. Here are 10 major public project failures and the lessons learned from these mistakes.

  1. Apple Lisa

In the early days of Apple, Lisa was the first GUI computer marketed at personal business users. It was supposed to be the first digital desktop computer that incorporated the now famous mouse, and a 5 MHz, 1MB RAM processor – the fastest of its kind back in 1983.

However, the project was a big failure. Only 10,000 computers were sold. It was such a failure that Steve Jobs was taken off that project and allocated to another project, the Macintosh. Apple Lisa overpromised and under-delivered, with a price-performance ratio that was significantly worse than had been expected.

Lesson Learned: the importance of stakeholder communication and transparency.

  1. Crystal Pepsi

The early 1990s saw the trend for ‘light’ drinks emerge. In 1992, Pepsi launched Crystal Pepsi, a soft drink that tasted similar to regular Pepsi but it was clear-coloured. Initially sales were good, mainly due to the curiosity factor, but soon dropped away to the point where Crystal Pepsi was withdrawn from the market just 2 years later.

The mistake of David Novak, creator of Crystal Pepsi, and Pepsi itself, was making too many assumptions about the product and market demand. Novak was even told by the bottlers that the drink needed to taste more like Pepsi. Unfortunately, he didn’t listen.

Lesson Learned: never allow stakeholder communication to be one way and don’t make assumptions. Leverage everyone’s expertise and verify statements before considering them fact.

  1. Ford Edsel

It’s not often that Ford gets it wrong but in the case of the Edsel, they failed on a big scale. Ford wanted to close the gap with General Motors and Chrysler. Having spent $250 million and 10 years developing the Edsel, by the time it came to the market the trend was for more compact cars.

Launched in 1957, the Edsel was considered overpriced, over-hyped, too big and unattractive. By 1959, production was ceased.

Lesson Learned: update a project’s business case and schedule during the lifetime of the project. The good news is that Ford did use their Edsel production facilities to manufacture compact cars.

  1. Computerised DMV

In the 1990s, the DMV tried to computerise their department to track drivers’ licences and vehicle registrations.

But after 5 years and $27 million, as well as ‘putting all their eggs into one basket’ with Tandem Computers, they discovered their computers were actually slower than the ones they replaced. On top of that, a state audit found that the DMV was violating contracting laws and regulations.

Lesson Learned: processes should be followed and any legal or regulatory constraints must be included in the project plan.

  1. J.C. Penny’s 2011 rebrand

To wean customers away from their reliance on coupons, J.C. Penny introduced simpler price points and colour-coded price tags, and ran a marketing campaign to promote this strategy.

Customers found the new pricing structure confusing, and that many items in reality never went on sale. Revenues dropped significantly and J.C. Penny had to admit failure.

Lesson Learned: the impact of a lack of stakeholder and market research and little risk management.

  1. Airbus A380

When the Airbus A380 was launched in 2007, much was expected of the airplane, but just 10 years later, they were being sold for no more than spare parts. The expected game-changer led to Airbus struggling to secure deals with airlines.

The A380 was expensive to produce and Airbus’s production teams didn’t communicate and used different CAD programs. That mistake alone cost $6 billion. Furthermore, the second-hand market was non-existent because the planes were simply too big for any airline to make back their invested money.

Lesson Learned: the impact of poor internal communication and a business case that was built on initial sales, taking the second-hand market for granted.

  1. Montreal’s Highway 15 overpass

In 2016, Montreal city officials found that an overpass for Highway 15 didn’t align with the design for the new Champlain Bridge nearby, which was also undergoing redevelopment.

So just a year after being built, the overpass was torn down at a cost of $11 million to the taxpayer. While changing design criteria can have expensive knock-on effects, there was an apparent lack of communication between projects here.

Lesson Learned: a lack of programme management meant the bridge and the overpass for the same highway were being constructed without the other being considered. The long-term planning and internal communication suffered as a result.

  1. Knight Capital

This company’s stock market algorithm released in 2012 with code from an earlier build. It took just 30 minutes for a software glitch to see the company lose a massive $440 million and be forced into a merger a year later.

Although their CEO, Thomas Joyce, implied that the software bug could have happened to anyone, it is very likely that poor software development and inadequate testing models are more to blame for the defect in their trading algorithm.

Lesson Learned: project targets and deadlines must be realistic to be achievable. Rushing a product invites mistakes.

  1. Target’s failed entry into Canada

When Target said they were expanding their retail outfit into Canada, 81% of Canadian shoppers expressed interest in visiting them. It should have been a resounding success, but it wasn’t. Less than 2 years later, Target’s Chairman and CEO announced they were pulling out of Canada, closing all 133 stores.

Target misjudged the Canadian customer. Their stores did not feature the same low prices as the US stores, there were serious supply and distribution problems, and they opened too many stores too quickly.

Lesson Learned: the need for better planning of resources and supply, along with poor management of stakeholder expectations.

  1. Afghan forest camo pattern

Afghanistan’s landscape features around 2% woodland, yet this didn’t stop the US government from spending $28 million of taxpayers’ money on ‘forest’ pattern uniforms for the Afghan National Army. It was only chosen because the Afghan Defence Minister liked the design.

Ultimately, these uniforms were never used, so the money and uniforms were completely wasted. That particular forest pattern required a paid license, while many patterns already owned by the army were more suitable for Afghanistan’s landscape.

Lesson Learned: poor management led to a serious oversight. Stakeholder engagement and quality control would have prevented this.

Why projects fail: the common warning signs

Throughout the 10 failed projects we’ve highlighted above, there are a number of common themes. Identify these warning signs and you can avoid making the same mistakes.

  1. Lack of interest – warning signs include stakeholders not attending meetings or providing feedback, as well as allocated tasks not being completed on time. It’s the project manager’s role to track assignments and ensure a high level of communication at all times. If you believe stakeholders are losing interest, call a meeting to reiterate the value of the project.

  1. Poor communication – it’s easy for members of the project team to become ‘lost’ and out of the loop with project progress, decisions and reviews. Project managers should have a communication plan and automate as much as they can. This ensures everyone involved in the project is kept up-to-date constantly.

  1. Lack of transparency – the more you try to cover up a problem or issue, the less transparency you have and the greater the problem becomes. Be honest. Issues do arise and the best way forward is to identify them as early as possible, notify stakeholders, including sponsors and customers, and work closely with them to resolve the issue.

  1. Scope creep – don’t start the project until all the stakeholders are on the same page. Always ensure everyone has the scope statement to work from.

  1. Poor management oversight – ensure everyone’s roles and responsibilities are well-defined. The project manager is accountable to other stakeholders.

There will always be project failures. The key is to identify them as early as possible and work to resolve them before it is too late, minimising the damage. It is the project manager’s responsibility to lead by example, and learn from other people’s mistakes.