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Most IT Projects Fail. Will Yours?

IT Project Management | By Kelly Waters | Read time minutes

White king stands next to defeated black king in a game of chess

Studies on project failure are easy to find and make depressing reading. Gartner studies suggest that 75% of all US IT projects are considered to be failures by those responsible for initiating them. But what do they mean by failure?

They mean the solutions fundamentally did not do what was agreed. Or they missed deadlines. And/or came in over budget. Indeed half of the projects exceeded budget by 200%!

A Standish Group study, again in the US IT industry, found that 31% of projects were cancelled outright and that the performance of 53% of the all projects was so worrying that they were challenged.

Some questions that need to be answered in assessing whether a project is fundamentally a success or failure?

  • Has the project satisfied the business requirements of the primary stakeholders?
  • Were the deliverables produced on time and within budget (or as amended by agreed change control)?
  • Do the business owners perceive the project to be successful?
  • Has the project delivered the business value promised in the original case for doing it?

I've scanned the Internet and read all sorts of articles and research on project failure, and consolidated them into a long list of reasons why IT projects most commonly fail. I've managed to eliminate all the duplicate reasons and boil it all down to these common areas, although it's still quite a long list, unfortunately for IT and project managers!

Project Initiation and Planning Issues

  • Unclear or unconvincing business case
  • Insufficient or non-existent approval process
  • Poor definition of project scope and objectives
  • Insufficient time or money given to project
  • Lack of business ownership and accountability
  • Insufficient and/or over-optimistic planning
  • Poor estimating
  • Long or unrealistic timescales; forcing project end dates despite best estimates
  • Lack of thoroughness and diligence in the project startup phases

Technical and Requirements Issues

  • Lack of user involvement (resulting in expectation issues)
  • Product owner unclear or consistently not available
  • Scope creep; lack of adequate change control
  • Poor or no requirements definition; incomplete or changing requirements
  • Wrong or inappropriate technology choices
  • Unfamiliar or changing technologies; lack of required technical skills
  • Integration problems during implementation
  • Poor or insufficient testing before go-live
  • Lack of QA for key deliverables
  • Long and unpredictable bug fixing phase at end of project

Stakeholder Management and Team Issues

  • Insufficient attention to stakeholders and their needs; failure to manage expectations
  • Lack of senior management/executive support; project sponsors not 100% committed to the objectives; lack understanding of the project and not actively involved
  • Inadequate visibility of project status
  • Denial adopted in preference to hard truths
  • People not dedicated to project; trying to balance too many different priorities
  • Project team members lack experience and do not have the required skills
  • Team lacks authority or decision making ability
  • Poor collaboration, communication and teamwork

Project Management Issues

  • No project management best practices
  • Weak ongoing management; inadequately trained or inexperienced project managers
  • Inadequate tracking and reporting; not reviewing progress regularly or diligently enough
  • Ineffective time and cost management
  • Lack of leadership and/or communication skills

I'm sure we've all seen projects with all or some of these issues. You know, those projects "other people" run.

In reality, probably ALL projects have many of these issues. But somewhere there is a threshold. An undefined point where the issues are material to a project's chance of success, or its likelihood to fail. If only we knew where that point was!

A few things struck me when compiling this list:

Not one article or piece of research I read (and I read quite a few!) mentioned risk management. Not one. Lack of proactive risk management. Inability to identify or mitigate risks. Lack of focus on risks. Not one article or piece of research that I found. So that got me thinking. If we don't seem to acknowledge risk management, and we certainly don't seem to see it as a cause of failure, are we to believe that we as an IT industry have got risk management cracked? And if so, why do so many of our projects fail?

Secondly, I was thinking about how agile principles help to mitigate these risks? I have a strong view that agile methods help with some of these areas a lot, although I'm not sure all. And it also got me thinking that I don't recall reading about any formal mechanism or process for risk management within agile methods - unless I've missed or forgotten it. There's quite a bit of risk management inherently built into agile principles and practices, but there doesn't seem to be any explicit risk management discipline.

Thirdly, I started thinking about risk management in more formal project management methodologies such as PRINCE2. Risk management is certainly a key discipline there. But one of the key things I was taught as a PRINCE2-based project manager (once upon a time I was one), was to only highlight risks unique to the project, because there's no need to highlight the usual risks. We all know software development projects might run late, for instance. So we don't need to articulate it on a formal project proposal, or in the risk log, etc. But if we don't articulate and mitigate the usual risks, aren't we ignoring the risks most likely to cause our project to fail?

Kelly Waters is Head of Web Solutions for Reed Business Information (UK), the world's largest business-to-business publisher. By implementing agile development, he has transformed his department of more than 90 people. Prior to joining Reed Business, Kelly was CTO for Glass's Information Services, Europe's leading provider of information to the automotive industry, most famous for Glass's Guide, the UK's bible for used car prices. Kelly has been in software development for more than 20 years. He is also a voluntary business advisor for Young Enterprise, an organisation that helps young people gain valuable business experience through practical projects.


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