Why do so many IT projects fail?

You may have seen some of those outrageous statistics such as “75% of IT projects fail” or “one in six IT projects has cost overruns in excess of 100%”. These are just some example factoids that you can easily find via Google, but most anyone that has spent time in the corporate IT space has seen or experienced failed projects. IT projects are generally evaluated on three specific metrics:

  • Scope: What you are planning to deliver
  • Budget: How much you are going to pay for it
  • Schedule: When it will be done

On the surface it seems straightforward enough and not far different than many other types of services that you would pay for, such as automobile repair or home improvements. This begs the question: Why do IT projects fail? There are certainly many factors, but I will attempt to outline the major reasons as I see them:

Lack Of Alignment To Business Goals

This ties back to Part I of my blog series: Why do businesses initiate IT projects?  This seems like it would be easy to answer, but the reality is far less straightforward. Often times, projects are initiated for wrong or unclear reasons, and if you are not completely sure why you are undertaking a project, it is very difficult to accomplish it successfully. 

As an example, no one would ever hire a General Contractor to put an addition on their house without a very clear reason for doing it. Maybe you need an in-law suite for your aging parents, extra bedrooms for the kids or additional bathrooms to solve a bottleneck. Whatever the reason, you would have that very clearly defined before ever starting a project, and you would have clear metrics that define success upon completion. An example of a metric could be as simple as a fully functioning bathroom upon completion.

Unfortunately, IT projects do not always have that type of clarity of purpose, and it is not uncommon for IT project teams to have no understanding or visibility as to the business reasons why they are delivering a project. Seems crazy, but it is true.

Inadequate Planning

Poor or lack of planning is a very common reason that IT projects fail. While your business goals outline why you are initiating a project, your planning needs to clearly outline what you are going to deliver and how you are going to accomplish it. Scope, budget, and schedule should be clearly documented and planned before starting a project. Estimating is one of the most challenging aspects of project planning and tends to be much more of an art than a science.

Doing a deep dive into detailed requirements prior to estimation can go a long way into improving accuracy, but that takes significant time and resources and most companies are unwilling to make that investment. Estimation is usually formula-driven with multipliers for various work functions such as Quality Assurance or Project Management. This type of estimation is much faster to build out, but is dependent on a high-level knowledge of the work effort and is prone to error. Adding contingencies can help add a layer of buffering for inaccuracies, but that typically does not exceed 20% of the overall project cost or schedule. 

Essentially, in many cases, the project planning phase really equates to a “best guess”, which obviously does not lead to a high level of on-time, on-budget, successful projects.

Disengaged Sponsorship

This is another interesting scenario where you have received approval to start a project, but you do not have adequate engagement of the business owner or sponsor. During the natural course of a project, there will always be key decision points, approvals and guidance required to keep the work aligned with business goals moving forward. Lack of sponsorship engagement can result in significant delays or simply bad decisions, which can lead to poor results or rework. The business sponsor does not need to be engaged on a daily or even weekly basis, but when needed, they must be responsive and available.

This expectation should be agreed upon at the beginning of the project, and if it cannot, you likely need to find a new sponsor.

Ineffective Project Management

In my opinion, Project Management is one of the most challenging IT roles to perform. This is not to say that there are not a significant number of tools and methodologies available to guide the process, but ultimately the effectiveness of Project Management will come down to the capabilities of the individual. I have worked with many PM’s that touted Project Management Institute (PMI) certifications but struggled to actively manage projects. I believe this is because Project Managers require many intangible skills to be truly effective such as leadership, interpersonal communication, and political savvy, and all those skills are difficult to measure with a written test or an interview.

The ability to develop a project plan or schedule are certainly valuable, but it takes more than that to successfully lead a project. If your PM does not possess these intangible skills, your odds for a successful project diminish significantly.

Unrealistic Expectations

Simply put, it is not feasible to build a $1 million house on a $250k budget or squeeze a six-month project into a six-week timeline. Yet, companies try taking on these types of ridiculous projects all the time. It is usually because of a hard-driving senior leader who will not take no for an answer, and he or she thinks if they push hard enough, they can get what they want. This usually leads to crazy work hours for the project team, burnt out resources and a solution that ultimately misses the mark. It is not uncommon for project teams to go through periods of time where hours are stretched to make up time, but kicking off a project that has no realistic chance to be successful is a bad idea.

Resource Limitations

This seems fairly obvious: if you do not have the right resources, it will be difficult to accomplish your goals. However, I have seen far too many times where critical project roles are staffed with under-qualified resources. It could be related to cost or simply providing an individual a career growth opportunity on a project. Whatever the reason, lack of skill and experience can reduce a project’s likelihood for success. Depending on the criticality of the project and role, this can sometimes work, but often it will lead to project delays or failure. One common way to alleviate this issue is to engage consultants for key skills or experience. 

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