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9 min read

Failed projects: 7 examples and lessons learned

Failed projects present a learning opportunity. Explore these famous project failures and find out what went wrong so you can get it right.
From Team '23

Tempo Team

A project can fail for any number of reasons. From missed deadlines to improper resource management, there are countless potential pitfalls. Fortunately, you can learn from others’ mistakes, so you don’t have to make your own. 

Let’s peel back the layers and explore the causes behind some high-profile failed projects. You’ll discover insights to help you avoid these missteps in your own work.

Why do projects fail?

Initiatives can fall short for countless reasons. Still, common patterns emerge when examining failed projects. Here are some reasons for common project flops:

  • Insufficient preparation: Some project managers overlook essential project management principles, such as goal setting and project planning. Nebulous or unrealistic goals set a project up for failure from the start. Without clear definitions and prioritization of personal, departmental, and organizational objectives, a team may miss targets.

  • Disorganization and miscommunication: Even team members who possess the necessary skills and expertise can’t fulfill their potential without organization. If the project manager doesn’t foster effective communication among team members and stakeholders, misunderstandings and missed deadlines will ensue. Additionally, uncertainty in project team roles and responsibilities leads to conflict and gaps in accountability.

  • External interference: Sometimes, problems originate outside the team. Upper management may interfere, imposing scope creep or delaying essential tasks. Regulations and unforeseen policy changes may halt progress. Shifts in the market and consumer preferences can also threaten project success, especially when a team hasn’t conducted comprehensive market research.

7 examples of failed projects

Examining historic project failures can illuminate the most common pitfalls between you and success. These project failure case studies offer valuable lessons, highlighting the importance of proper project planning.

1. The Concorde supersonic passenger jet

The airline industry has seen its share of failed projects, often due to overambitious plans and inadequate market research. A prominent example is the now-defunct Concorde supersonic airliner.

The Concorde was a supersonic passenger airplane developed in the 1960s as a joint venture between the United Kingdom and France. It was designed to revolutionize air travel by reducing flight times, allowing passengers to cross the Atlantic in just a few hours. However, only 14 Concorde aircraft entered service before the line was retired in 2003.

What went wrong? 

Although it was a marvel of engineering, the Concorde faced multiple challenges preventing long-term commercial success.

The aircraft’s operation was prohibitively expensive due to high fuel consumption and maintenance needs, leading to high fares. With only around 100 seats, it could not compete with larger jets that had better economies of scale. The Concorde was also very noisy, leading to operational restrictions and limited routes. The final blow came with a catastrophic crash in 2000, which raised significant safety concerns and likely hastened its retirement. 

Project management lessons

Concorde’s failure teaches us that you must balance a project’s scope with its potential benefits. Project managers underestimated the costs and overestimated how much people would pay for faster travel. Lofty goals without realistic market assessments led to project failure.

2. The Y2K Problem

The Y2K problem, also known as the Millennium Bug, was a software glitch that garnered widespread attention as the year 2000 approached. Many computer systems were programmed to store the year as two digits (e.g., “99” for 1999). This led to concerns that these systems would interpret the year 2000 (“00”) as 1900, causing malfunctions.

An ambitious project aimed to update and fix these systems to prevent potential failures in critical infrastructure, including banking, utilities, and government operations. 

What went wrong? 

Organizations spent billions of dollars upgrading and patching systems worldwide to address the Y2K issue. The anticipated catastrophic failures largely did not occur – even in countries that didn’t invest in fixes – leading some to view the extensive efforts as an overreaction.

Project management lessons

The Y2K problem demonstrates that better foresight can prevent chaos and save money. This case study highlights the importance of anticipating issues and keeping a level head during crises. Poor risk management and system design were big problems.

3. Sony Betamax

Sony launched its Betamax cassette recorder in 1975, confident that its superior quality would lead to market dominance. However, because of their high quality, the first Betamax tapes only offered a one-hour recording time. In addition, the technology was proprietary, limiting which companies could produce compatible devices and raising its price.

In contrast, JVC, another electronics giant, launched the VHS format in the late 1970s and licensed it widely, enabling greater market penetration. VHS tapes initially offered two-hour recording times, enough to record a feature-length film on one cassette. 

What went wrong?

Despite Betamax’s superior technology and earlier market entry, it lost to VHS, which was cheaper, easier to use, and offered longer recording times. Sony’s decision to keep Betamax exclusive limited its accessibility and appeal to consumers. Additionally, JVC’s strategic partnership with American motion picture companies helped establish VHS as the go-to format for home video recording and rental. 

Project management lessons

Betamax’s failure shows that superior technology doesn’t guarantee success. To capture the market, products must be affordable and user-friendly. Team members must understand and address customer needs and preferences to ensure the long-term success of any project.

4. Crystal Pepsi

Crystal Pepsi, a clear cola, was launched in 1992 with great fanfare. The project team was hopeful Crystal Pepsi would outshine the competition, specifically Coca-Cola. It was marketed as a “healthier” soda option that removed the caramel coloring from the classic cola recipe, resulting in a clear, slightly less sweet beverage with fewer calories.

What went wrong? 

Although initially met with curiosity and interest, Crystal Pepsi struggled to maintain a lasting market share. Despite its innovative appearance, its taste was often described as bland and watery. 

David Novak, the executive responsible for the initiative, admitted to rushing the drink to launch and ignoring stakeholders’ concerns about taste and shelf-life. Coca-Cola also launched its own colorless cola, Tab Clear, diluting the novelty of clear colas. Due to poor sales and intense competition, PepsiCo discontinued Crystal Pepsi in early 1994, just two years after its launch. 

Project management lessons

The Crystal Pepsi case study shows the importance of listening to feedback. It highlights the risks of poor project management and insufficient planning. Designers need adequate time to ensure product quality and satisfy customer preferences.

5. New Coke

Crystal Pepsi wasn’t the only soft drink to fall flat. Coca-Cola faced its own disaster with the introduction of  “New Coke” in 1985.

Despite being the world’s best-selling soft drink, Coca-Cola faced increasing competition from Pepsi-Cola, which was gaining market share through its aggressive “Pepsi Challenge” campaign. In blind taste tests, consumers often preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi, leading Coca-Cola to believe its flavor needed an update.

What went wrong?

When New Coke was introduced, the negative consumer reaction was swift and overwhelming. The backlash was so intense that the Coca-Cola Company reintroduced the original formula just 79 days later under the brand name “Coca-Cola Classic.” This move acknowledged the public’s strong preference for the original taste and highlighted customers’ emotional attachment to the brand.

Project management lessons

The New Coke fiasco proves customers become emotionally attached to a brand. Good market research shouldn’t ignore brand loyalty when surveying consumer preferences. Even well-intentioned changes can fail if they disregard the deep-seated loyalty of the customer base.

6. McDonald’s Arch Deluxe Burger

In 1996, McDonald’s launched the Arch Deluxe Burger to attract a more sophisticated adult audience. Marketed as “The Burger with the Grown Up Taste,” the campaign featured children rejecting the gourmet burger to emphasize its appeal to adults. This was part of an effort to expand McDonald’s customer base beyond its traditional focus on kids and families.

What went wrong? Despite spending over $200 million on advertising, the campaign failed to resonate with McDonald’s core customers – kids and families. The Arch Deluxe was also more expensive than other menu items, which didn’t align with McDonald’s reputation for affordable options. After poor sales, the Arch Deluxe was completely removed from menus in 2000.

Project management lessons

The Arch Deluxe Burger case study shows the importance of developing a product strategy that stays true to one’s customer base. Understanding and using customer data to guide decisions can save money and prevent product failures.

7. The Ford Edsel

In 1957, the Ford Motor Company debuted Edsel, a new division and brand of cars named after Henry Ford’s son. With high expectations, Ford invested over $250 million in developing a seven-model product line. Edsel targeted middle-class Americans, aiming to capture an untapped market for mid-priced cars. 

What went wrong?

Edsel cars were too expensive to meet the needs of their intended market. Ford’s market research failed to recognize a shift in consumer preference toward compact, fuel-efficient vehicles by the time Edsel launched. Consequently, Edsel failed to achieve its sales goals and was discontinued shortly after its debut. 

Project management lessons

The failure of Ford’s Edsel line provides a perfect example of misreading the market. Like McDonald’s Arch Deluxe burger, Ford targeted the wrong audience.

Additionally, this business case study proves product teams must balance innovation with cost consideration to meet the pricing needs of their target market.

How do we prevent projects from failing?

Successful project execution requires hard work, attention to detail, and successful project management. Here are some tips to help your projects succeed:

  • Set clear goals: Define what success looks like and ensure all team members understand the project’s objectives.

  • Avoid scope creep: Outline realistic limits and manage project changes to prevent uncontrolled growth.

  • Conduct thorough market research: Understand your market, customers, and competition to make informed decisions.

  • Facilitate effective communication: Maintain open communication among team members and stakeholders to address concerns and promote clarity.

  • Plan initiatives thoroughly: Create a comprehensive project plan that includes timelines, resources, and milestones. Conduct regular reviews and adjust the plan as needed.

  • Assign clear roles and responsibilities: Ensure everyone knows their tasks to avoid confusion and gaps in responsibility.

  • Monitor and manage risks: Proactively identify risks and develop mitigation strategies.

  • Use agile methodologies: Maintain an agile mindset in your organization. Break down projects into smaller tasks and deliver in cycles.

  • Remain flexible: Adjust your plans in response to new information or changing circumstances.

  • Conduct quality control: Review and test your product or service to ensure it meets quality standards.

  • Perform post-project review: After completing a project, conduct a review to identify successes and make improvements for future projects.

Final words

Projects fail for many reasons, but lessons from past mistakes can guide us toward success. Set clear goals, implement proper planning, and do your market research. By following these strategies, you can turn potential failures into triumphs. 

And you don’t need to do it alone. Tempo offers various project management tools that can streamline product development and rollout. Structure PPM helps you track and manage multiple projects and portfolios from one Jira-integrated dashboard. Strategic Roadmaps enables you to communicate your project priorities.

Explore the full suite of Tempo products and take your project management to the next level.