3 min readApr 8, 2024


Why Data Projects Fail to Deliver Real-Life Impact - Part III: Failure through the Looking Glass

Data Analytics
Data Analytics Series

There’s a huge volume of material available on project failure — resources that document why individual projects failed, while in general projects fail, why project members, managers and/or executives think projects fail, and there seems to be no other pleasant activity at the end of a project than to theorize why a project failed, the topic culminating occasionally with the blaming game. Success may generate applause, though is failure that attracts and stirs the most waves (irony, disapproval, and other similar behavior) and everybody seems to be an expert after the consumed endeavor.

The mere definition of a project failure — not fulfilling project’s objectives within the set budget and timeframe — is a misnomer because budgets and timelines are estimated based on the information available at the beginning of the project, the amount of uncertainty for many projects being considerable, and data projects are no exceptions from it. The higher the uncertainty the less probable are the two estimates. Even simple projects can reveal uncertainty especially when the broader context of the projects is considered.

Even if it’s not a common practice, one way to cope with uncertainty is to add a tolerance for the estimates, though even this practice probably will not always accommodate the full extent of the unknown as the tolerances are usually small. The general expectation is to have an accurate and precise landing, which for big or exploratory projects is seldom possible.

Moreover, the assumptions under which the estimates hold are easily invalidated in praxis — resources’ availability, first time right, executive’s support to set priorities, requirements’ quality, technologies’ maturity, etc. If one looks beyond the reasons why projects fail in general, quite often the issues are more organizational than technological, the lack of knowledge and experience being one of the factors.

Conversely, many projects will not get approved if the estimates don’t look positive, and therefore people are pressured in one way or another to make the numbers fit the expectations. Some projects, given their importance, need to be done even if the numbers don’t look good or can’t be quantified correctly. Other projects represent people’s subsistence on the job, respectively people self-occupation to create motion, though they can occasionally have also a positive impact for the organizations. These kinds of aspects almost never make it in statistics or surveys. Neither do the big issues people are afraid to talk about. Where to consider that in the light of politics and office’s grapevine the facts get distorted.

Data projects reflect all the symptoms of failure projects have in general, though when words like AI, Statistics or Machine Learning are used, the chances for failure are even higher given that the respective fields require a higher level of expertise, the appropriate use of technologies and adherence to the scientific process for the results to be valid. If projects can benefit from general receipts, respectively established procedures and methods, their range of applicability decreases when the mentioned areas are involved.

Many data projects have an exploratory nature — seeing what’s possible — and therefore a considerable percentage will not reach production. Moreover, even those that reach that far might arrive to be stopped or discarded sooner or later if they don’t deliver the expected value, and probably many of the models created in the process are biased, irrelevant, or incorrectly apply the theory. Where to add that the mere use of tools and algorithms is not Data Science or Data Analysis.

The challenge for many data projects is to identify which Project Management (PM) best practices to consider. Following all or no practices at all just increases the risks of failure!

See also: Part I, Part II, Part IV

Originally published at Written Apr-2024.




IT professional/blogger with more than 24 years experience in IT - Software Engineering, BI & Analytics, Data, Project, Quality, Database & Knowledge Management