Avoiding IT Project Failure: It's Really Not That Hard!

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Avoiding IT Project Failure: It's Really Not That Hard!

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

The Problem

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!


The Solution

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

The Problem

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.


The Solution

To gain and maintain control of your project, you must take the following actions:

  • Introduce a change control process and ensure that your team and stakeholders understand and comply with it. Change control also helps you make certain that your team stays focused on delivering what is important.
  • Introduce and practice exception reporting. Long form status reports can be useful sometimes – but they generally take a lot of time to compile and critical messages are often obscured by noise. Exception reporting saves time and makes sure there is better focus on risks and issues as they arise.
  • Communicate progress regularly with your customer, sponsor, team members and other relevant stakeholders. Verbally and formally. And don’t obscure anything that might reflect sub-par performance!
  • Review and update your project plan regularly to check whether the project is on track and performing as expected. These checks enable you to take corrective action early if the project is deviating from the plan. If you don't intend to review and update your plan, then it's not worth creating. However, try to avoid the temptation of re-baselining the project as a mechanism to get it back on track – it’s generally better to report actual compared to expected outcomes. This will enable you and the team to more easily take away learnings for next time.

3. Lack of Staffing and Skills

The Problem

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.


The Solution

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

The Problem

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:

  • Failure to define the requirements clearly, resulting in not meeting customer expectations.
  • Cutting-edge or new technology that causes unforeseen problems.
  • Poor technical design, preventing changes or scaling of the solution in the future.
  • Poor change control, allowing change requests to cause the project to drift.
  • Changing business priorities, diverting attention away from core work.
  • Inadequate testing, leading to bugs and errors left in the product.
  • Loss of key people at critical times.


The Solution

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:

  • Employ a business analyst to draw out the customers' requirements and document them in a clear and concise way.
  • Ask if it's necessary to use cutting-edge technology, or whether a more proven solution will deliver the same benefits.
  • Use your team to create a technical design as it gives you a far greater chance of something robust and scalable, with the bonus that your team has a stake in making it succeed.
  • Agree to a change control process with your customer before the project starts and stick to it.
  • Create a weekly work-plan for the team so that they stay focused on the priorities and aren't distracted.
  • Put a test plan together with test scenarios based on the customer requirements, and ensure there is enough resource and customer commitment to run them.
  • Create a contingency plan covering loss of key people.

5. Failing to Manage Expectations

The Problem

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.


The Solution

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.

And Finally

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:

  • Poor project scoping and undefined project objectives, roles and responsibilities lead to unrealistic expectations.
  • Lack of communication between IT and business results in a mismatch of requirements and expectations.
  • Absence of both senior business sponsor and project manager.
  • Technology prioritised over people: No or minimal involvement of key users during the scoping phase and lack of regular communication with them throughout the project implementation.
  • Lack of project success metrics.
  • Absence of risk assessment or contingency plan.
  • Lack of regular checks to ensure the project is on track based on time and budget.

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!