What are the identifiers of a bad project?

To answer this question (asked on Quora), we need to define the meaning of “bad” in “bad project.”  As an old project management bit of wisdom goes, there are three main reasons why projects fail (and thus may be identified as “bad projects”):

  1. Requirements
  2. Requirements
  3. Requirements

When we talk projects, we use the notion of “project management triangle” consisting of scope, cost, and schedule constraints.

Thus, a bad project would be a project that failed to stay within the constraints, i.e. was late, or too expensive, or not delivering what’s expected – or any combination of those.

Often you may see quality squeezed in as the fourth constraint. I would never consider quality as a variable, similarly to the original three constraints: it is either there – or not. What will you say if you buy a hamburger that is of good quality but tastes horrible?

In most cases, a bad project can be identified already at a very early stage. Just look for the three constraints, and if any one of them is not properly defined, accepted by the parties involved and properly documented, we are heading towards a disaster.

Still, in real-life situations, even a good project will often miss one of the constraints – and will still be considered a good project. How come? Read on.

Here’s a bonus detail that you will not find in your project management manual because it is a tricky one. In addition to the project requirements, it is absolutely necessary to determine and make clear to the project team and all project stakeholders WHAT IS THE REAL BUSINESS OBJECTIVE of the project.

This may take some effort to digest and to explain to the team. Worse, it may cause some grief with the project Sponsors who often waive the question as insignificant. But this is one of the core questions: If the business objective is clear to you and the team, you will be able to make timely operational decisions in critical moments of the project life.

In particular, you will be able to figure out which of the three constraints to let go in order to save the other two. If your assessment is correct (based on the knowledge of the real business objective), then you will still deliver a good project.