Project Failure: 10 Famous Failures and 5 Ways to Spot Them Before They Happen

by Marcus Varner
, 8 min read
project failure businesses examples

Even big brands make mistakes and, unfortunately for them, those mistakes often end up in the headlines. Fortunately for us, these are great examples of what not to do.

Looking at these famous flops through the lens of a project manager, we can learn how to spot issues before they have a chance to derail our plans, so we can avoid project failure.

10. Sony Betamax

betamax failure

Sony launched its cassette recording device known as Betamax in the mid 1970s. It lost the battle for market share to JVC’s VHS technology, but Sony didn’t stop making Betamax tapes until 2016, long after it was relevant to most of us, who didn’t even realize it was still in production.

Lessons Learned:

The story of Betamax has become nearly synonymous with failed marketing because while it was innovative and hit the market before its competition did, other products proved to be cheaper and better.

The lesson learned here is that project management doesn’t end when a project is launched or a campaign has run its course. Successful projects are followed up on, analyzed, and evaluated so they can maintain their velocity and continue to benefit the company’s bottom line.

9. New Coke

project failure

After testing a new recipe on 200,000 subjects and finding that people preferred it over the traditional version, Coca-Cola unveiled New Coke in 1985. Sounds like a safe move, right? Wrong.

Product loyalty and old-fashioned habit got in the way and people didn’t buy New Coke as expected, costing the company $4 million in development and a loss of $30 million in backstocked product it couldn’t sell.

Lessons Learned:

While Coca-Cola certainly did market research, they missed the mark when it comes to assessing customer motivations.Customer input is imperative in development and for your project to be successful, you need to ensure you have a way to gather comprehensive customer insight that gives accurate and realistic information.

8. Polaroid Instant Home Movies

polaroid instant home movie failure

With the Polavision you could record video, develop it in a matter of minutes, and then watch it immediately! It was groundbreaking at the time, but the two-and-a-half minute time limit, lack of sound, and the fact that you couldn’t watch the videos on your regular TV meant this project lasted just two years.

Lessons Learned:

The Polavision was revolutionary, but Polaroid dropped the ball when they failed to stay abreast of developing marketing needs. When you keep your finger on the pulse of your market, you’re ready to innovate to meet its needs and avoid project failure.

7. Crystal Pepsi

 project failure

Crystal Pepsi was a hit at first, and people were excited about the new version of an old favorite. But people soon lost interest and the novelty wore off, making it impossible for Crystal Pepsi to gain a strong market share.

Lessons Learned:

David Novak was the COO of PepsiCo during the project and didn’t listen when bottlers told him the Crystal Pepsi flavor wasn’t quite right. “I learned there that you have to recognize that when people are bringing up issues, they might be right,” he later said.

6. McDonald's Arch Deluxe Burger

project failure

In 1996, McDonald’s put more than $150 million into advertising—more than it had ever spent on an ad campaign—for its new Arch Deluxe Burger, only to find out its customers weren’t interested in the more grown-up, sophisticated menu option.

Lessons Learned:

This is another case that highlights the importance of letting customer data drive product strategy. If McDonald’s had a more accurate picture of what its customers wanted, it could have saved millions in advertising and resources.

A great way to stay on top of data is to choose a handful of key metrics to track, make sure your tools can accurately track them in as close to real time as possible, and then always strategize based on the numbers.

5. Apple Lisa

 project failure

Lisa, the first desktop with a mouse, cost $10,000 (almost $24,000 today) and had just 1 MB of RAM. Consumers weren’t as interested as Apple anticipated, and it was a case of over promising and under delivering, as the 1983 ads—featuring Kevin Costner—depicted the Lisa as much more than it really was.

Lessons Learned:

Transparency matters. It may feel like a buzzword you hear all the time, but there’s no better way to describe the lesson learned here other than to say that Apple was not transparent enough about the Lisa.

We no longer live in an age where you can falsify the capabilities of a product, because social media makes it easier for the truth to come out and word of mouth will eventually catch up to—and destroy—projects that lack transparency.

4. Levi Type 1 Jeans

 project failure

In the early 2000s, Levi Strauss introduced its Type 1 Jeans, which had exaggerated features like buttons, stitches, and rivets. The company ran a Super Bowl ad (that’s one project you don’t want to fumble!) that only confused customers and the style never caught on, forcing Levi’s to walk away from this flop. Fashion is fickle.

Lessons Learned:

While we don’t know what Levi’s project management processes are like, one way to avoid confusion is to improve internal communications so the final product has a clear message and is easily understood by end users.

Avoid email and spreadsheets and instead, try an operational system of record to communicate, get status updates, and track document versions.

3. IBM PCjr

 project faliure

IBM released its PCjr in 1983 in an attempt to attract home computer users, but the PCjr offered fewer features than its competitors and was twice as expensive as an Atari or Commodore. After customers complained about the low-quality keyboard, IBM offered an alternative, which had its own issues, and couldn’t revive interest in the PCjr.

Lessons Learned:

IBM had the right approach when it listened to users and provided what they were asking for: a new keyboard. Unfortunately, its response wasn’t quite enough because the product was low quality and didn’t help improve users’ experience with the PCjr.

When you listen to your market, especially in times of crisis, it’s imperative that you hit it out of the park with your response in a way that not only saves your project, but inspires even more brand loyalty with extremely satisfied customers.

 

2. The DeLorean DMC-12

project failure

Even the futuristic shape, gull-wing doors, and gold-plated models weren’t enough to save the DeLorean DMC-12, which experienced problems throughout production, giving it a rough start.

Then, John DeLorean, the company’s founder, was arrested in 1982 on drug trafficking charges he incurred while trying to raise money to save the business. Even though he was found not guilty, it was too late for the Marty McFly-famous car.

Lessons Learned:

This one is still playing out, but is a great example of leveraging nostalgia and coming back bigger and better. Or in this case, faster and more powerful.

In 2016, a new DeLorean was announced and then delayed due to some legal issues. However, things are back on track for an early 2019 release with an updated interior, more powerful engine, and faster speeds. In some cases, a do-over can tap into a niche market and bring a project back for a successful refresh.

1. The Ford Edsel

project failure

Ford did extensive market research before it released the Edsel, even doing studies to make sure the car had the right personality. But by the time all this research was done and the car was unveiled in 1957, Ford had missed its chance with its market, which had already moved on to buying compact cars, which didn’t include the Edsel.

Lessons Learned:

The Ford Edsel is the perfect example of the importance of speed to market and how even a major brand and product can fail if a project loses velocity. Things like poor communication, inaccurate deadlines, and out-of-touch project managers can majorly slow a project down, to the point that it’s no longer relevant or valuable.

Robert Kelly, services solution executive, global accounts at Lenovo and project management expert explained the importance of maintaining an accurate project schedule: “Even with the best planning and collaboration, things happen. Make sure your project schedule reflects the actual and current reality of the project.”

project failure examples quote

5 Ways to Spot Failures Before They Happen

How do these types of glaring omissions get past the teams that created these products? While the market isn't always as predictable as we'd like it to be and hindsight is always 20/20, failed projects like these can usually be traced to a few factors…

1. Note Lack of Interest

People stop showing up for meetings. Stakeholders stop participating or giving timely feedback. Tasks stop getting completed on time. All of these are signs that interest in a project is flagging.

How to stop it: Keep communications as up-to-date as possible. Track all assignments. Hold all assignees accountable. If stakeholders stop caring about a project, hold a sit-down to determine the current perceived value of your project to the organization.

2. Be Aware of Poor Communication

The team doesn't know when things are getting done, what's not getting done, or why it's not getting done. The project lead isn't communicating changes to the rest of the team. When communications do go out, they are either late or inaccurate.

How to stop it: While email and spreadsheets are okay for getting basic information out, they tend to be slower and more cumbersome than the typical fast-moving team needs. Consider purchasing tools that automate communications as much as possible.

business failure quotes

3. Be Honest About Lack of Velocity

Assignments are long past due, stalled on the approval of an elusive stakeholder. Maybe team members are spending more and more time on other projects. At any rate, contrary to your best projected completion dates, your project has come to a full stop.

How to start it: See the solution to "Lack of Interest." Accountability is especially key here. Ensure that everyone is aware of their assignments and their due dates and then press them to meet them.

4. Find Out if You Have a "No-Bad-News" Environment

The project leader finds out about late assignments long after they were due. When project questions are emailed out, answers are slow in coming. Individual reports in meetings are especially rosy and don't match the chaos that seems to be engulfing a project.

How to stop it: Let numbers rule. Let your team be ruled by a handful of key metrics that you can track, such as on-time delivery rate. And then make sure your tools can accurately track those metrics in as close to real time as possible.

project management failure examples

5. Anticipate Scope Changes

The project starts to barely resemble the requirements as they were given at its outset. Timelines have stretched beyond the original projections. The phrase, "You know what would be really cool would be if we added ________," is uttered during the review and approval phase.

How to stop it: Use an airtight requirements gathering process before the project starts. In fact, don't even allow the project to start until you, your team, your stakeholders, and your requestor are all on the same page. And then treat that requirements doc like a binding contract. 

In the end, the best way to avoid project failure (and embarrassing flops) is to stay one step ahead of your project and keep safeguards like these in place, so you can quickly pivot, producing a successful outcome regardless of what obstacles may arise.

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