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|Avoiding IT Project Failure: It's Really Not That Hard!|
By Craig Dennis
Everybody thinks that their project is unique. Maybe that’s true but the underlying causes of project failure usually have lot in common. When you know what the causes are you can usually avoid them and maximise your chances of success.
Projects go wrong for the same reasons all the time. There are no new sins. We can look at a project in its first two months and know if it will be a success or not. — Nick Dean, Managing Director at Professional Values
So what do you need to do when faced with poor initiation, weak control, lack of staffing, risks, issues and unrealistic expectations?
Here’s five common trouble spots and tips to avoid them.
1. Poor Project Initiation
We’ve all seen it. That initial burst of adrenaline filled excitement about the advantages that your new technology project will generate.
The problem is that camaraderie does not generate clear and accurate requirements or create a detailed project plan or properly set stakeholder’s expectations.
What it does do is generate impatience that sometimes convinces even the most battle-scarred campaigner that “doing” is a higher priority than “planning”.
Yes. It's tempting to start work quickly. But remember that failing to plan is all about planning to fail!
Don't start the project until it has been properly initiated. Don't allow the stakeholders to push you into starting work on the assumption that it will result in an earlier delivery. In particular be careful of inadvertently pandering to sales teams and executives who may be personally motivated by secondary issues.
The reality is that a poor initiation extends projects by causing rework, errors and oversights. It's best to say no when pushed and never start the build phase too early.
2. Weak Project Control
Projects must be managed at a very tightly through to the end. If you don't you’ve wasted your time doing a thorough job of planning and initiating it in the first place. Whilst I can’t speak with experience about anything other than I.T. projects I suspect that any complex job will quickly get in trouble if small technical issues are not identified, evaluated, corrected and assessed against any downstream dependencies.
Typical problems from weak project control include scope creep, poor work-planning, lack of change control, poor communication and poor management of risks and issues. Any of these will impact your project in terms of lost time, increased costs and/or reduced quality.
To gain and maintain control of your project, you must take the following actions:
3. Lack of Staffing and Skills
Over-committing the team or having the wrong skill mix is often the cause of project failure. It's frustrating when your project lacks the right number of skilled people, which is all too common today.
Human resources are often the largest single cost component of a project. Under-estimating the number of people you need and their cost may mean that the project has been approved without a realistic understanding of its cost base and return on investment.
How often have you heard of IT projects with 2x or 3x cost blow-outs? Common as they are, they simply should not happen.
Always insist that management provide you with people who have the right skills, whether they are internal or contract staff. Back up your request with a solid project plan that shows the areas where people are needed. Make sure that the estimates provided by your technical resources are conservative. From experience “techies” are very often over confident of their abilities and will inadvertently under estimate the time required.
Never keep quiet and struggle on as it's not fair to you or your team.
4. Failing to Address Risks and Issues
Every project carries risks and issues. Let’s face it - if there aren’t any risks or issues there probably is no need for project management! At various times during the project life cycle risks and issues may cause problems, even failures. Examples of these include:
Review a list of risks and issues at the start of every project. A good approach is to brainstorm possible risks and issues with your team or other project managers who have run similar projects. Continue to check for new and evolving risks and issues with your team throughout the project. Solutions for the aforementioned examples include:
5. Failing to Manage Expectations
Remember the adrenaline-fuelled excitement that I mentioned earlier? Very often this leaks out to all the stakeholders and generates an enormous amount of optimism. During the project life cycle, expectations can further inflate to a degree well beyond what is possible. And when customers don't really know what to expect or don't have much visibility of progress, frustration can set in and may break down your relationship with them.
It's a project manager's role to manage expectations to a rational level.
Long awaited “Big Bang” outcomes rarely meet evolving expectations. One way to beat this is to break down projects into smaller chunks or phases with frequent milestones. This will allow you to manage expectations by making regular deliveries so that customers see what they're getting and can better conceptualise the next steps.
Unilog, the independent pan-European IT consultancy and services company, did research in April 2003 that found 100% of IT managers had experienced projects that failed to meet all of their objectives. They identified the following deadly sins that lead to project failure:
Don't become the casualty of a failed project. Always put measures in place that address the five key areas to help secure your project success. After all, it's really not that hard!