10 Failed Projects: Examples and How You Can Avoid Making the Same Mistakes
Even big brands make mistakes. Unfortunately for them, the bigger the failed project, the more likely it is to hit the headlines. Fortunately for us, these project failure examples serve as great case studies of what not to do.
Looking at these famous failed projects examples through the lens of a project manager, we can learn how to spot issues before they have a chance to derail our plans — and avoid our own project failures in the future.
From Betamax to Crystal Pepsi, here are some high-profile projects that didn’t turn out as planned.
In this failed projects guide you will discover:
- Ten famous projects that failed
- Five ways to spot project failures before they happen
- Frequently asked questions
10. Sony Betamax
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. In the age of online streaming, very few us realized it was still in production.
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. To stop your idea from hitting the ashpile of failed projects, remember to keep analyzing, and evaluating your products. That way, they can maintain their velocity and continue to benefit your bottom line.
9. New Coke
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. That 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 back stocked product it couldn’t sell and becoming one of the most famous failed project case studies in history.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 overpromising and under-delivering, as the 1983 ads — featuring Kevin Costner — depicted the Lisa as much more than it really was.
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
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.
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.
To stop your project becoming a failure case study, avoid email and spreadsheets and instead, try an operational system of record to communicate, get status updates, and track document versions.
3. IBM PCjr
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
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
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.
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 from the brink of failure for a successful refresh.
1. The Ford Edsel
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.
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.”
Five ways to spot project failures before they happen.
When you read about project management failure case studies like these, it’s hard to see how the creatives and strategists who hatched the plans dropped the ball.
While the market is unpredictable and hindsight is always 20/20, there are a few common factors in failed projects that we can all learn from.
1. Low 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. 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 like Adobe Workfront that automate communications as much as possible.
3. 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 stop 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. If stakeholders are holding a project up, call them, if possible, to find out if there are any issues.
4. A “no bad news” environment
Individual reports in meetings are especially rosy and don't match the chaos that seems to be engulfing a project. Staff members avoid questions asking for progress updates and project leaders seem to be in the dark about why tasks are being done late, or not at all.
How to stop it: Let numbers rule. Your team should be guided 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.
5. Scope creep
The project starts to barely resemble the requirements as they were given at its outset. Timelineshave 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. This is scope creep — and you need to avoid it.
How to stop it: Use an airtight requirements gathering processbefore 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.
Frequently asked questions about project failures.
What is a failed project?
A project can be seen as a failure when it doesn’t achieve its objectives. This doesn’t just mean overall goals – a failed project could be something that went overbudget, over deadline or lost the support of its staff and stakeholders. By thoroughly planning your project and monitoring from start to finish, you can help ensure your project is a success.
What can we learn from a failed project?
Plenty! The main thing to take away is that these projects fell mainly because of poor communication along the way. Setting up your projects to automate as much of your communication as possible is key, and having everyone aware of certain key metrics will ensure positivity and morale is always high.
How do I recover from a failed project?
Having one failed project does not mean your company or idea is a failure. Learn from the mistakes made in the project that failed and start from the beginning, making those all-important changes along the way.