The failure rate of IT projects is a concern for any new project. Unfortunately, this is a valid concern when you consider the failure rate is around 25% across all projects. Small projects are more likely to succeed. However, one in five is still likely to end in failure.
The cost of failure can be substantial. Although the dollar amount for small projects may be less, the impact to the business can still be crippling. It is not uncommon for core business functions to rely on the success of these projects.
Systems have gotten much more complicated and will continue to do so. We have more users, more devices, more data, and more systems to integrate each year. That adds up to more potential points of failure. Thus, it is not likely that the failure numbers will get better. On the other hand, a look into the reasons why projects fail reveals easy fixes. When you distil the most common problems to their essence, the failure details are mistakes that would doom any endeavor.
Projects Fail due to lack of Definition
Every article and book I have read about project failure include reasons that center around poor requirements. Correspondingly, my experience has included a lot of examples to support these claims. Of course, this makes all the sense in the world. Assume you ask someone to build a house and fail to specify the number of bedrooms, baths, and floors. What is the likelihood the home builder will be successful? IT projects are far more complex and thus require much more definition.
All too often projects jump into implementation on the strength of sketches on a napkin. Someone puts together a few PowerPoint slides, tosses in some descriptions and arrows and coding begins. It only makes sense that this approach leads to failure. We need to step back and consider whether our vision is fully captured. I know there is an urgency to turn our ideas into reality, but jumping into implementation is not the answer.
Projects Fail due to lack of Communication
Similar to the lack of definition is a lack of communication. This can start with the project vision not being properly communicated, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. The goals of a project need to be communicated to everyone involved. I don’t mean specific goals to everyone, but overall goals need to be shared and expectations set. An excellent communication approach for this is through a timeline and milestones.
When a team is on the same page for tasks and timing, it goes a long way in promoting success. This includes staying informed about status and progress. Projects will run into bumps and unforeseen problems. When these are communicated correctly, then the team can adjust to them. When they are not properly shared small slips can become significant and, expectations may not be met. You don’t drive down the highway with your steering wheel locked in place. Likewise, you can not use that approach in project management.
Projects Fail due to lack of Usability
The third bucket of project failure reasons is one we call usability. This is a rather large umbrella that includes business application and general usefulness. I have seen a lot of projects fail for these reasons. The typical problem is that there is a disconnect between the key stakeholders and those in the trenches that will use it. Usually this disconnect centers around business rules and how they are implemented. I see the latter problem arise in new ventures and directions where the goals have not been fully worked out.
In smaller projects, this failure reason often comes about because the project owner fails to understand the impact of their decisions. This is often due to lack of a firm understanding of their business and regulations. It also comes from shifting business requirements.
I can not begin to count the number of times I have seen projects start with a general concept (e.g. we want to be the Uber of green salads) and there is a solution created for it. Unfortunately, as the project progresses, the goals change. The change comes from deeper insight into the business idea. This leads to adjustments to be marketable or profitable.
In large projects, this often comes from stakeholders and project owners being too distant from the end users. The big picture business may be understood. However, there is a lack of understanding of how the day to day work is accomplished. This leads to gaps in data collection, unneeded data being collected, and other problems. Unfortunately, these fail to manifest until the end users start working with the application.
Planning is Everything
There are volumes of books written on design and planning. This is because proper planning and design are crucial factors in the success of a project. When a project is started, make sure that enough time is spent on these areas. The likelihood of success will increase dramatically. Factors not mentioned in this article like availability of resources, lack of proper skills, and other implementation risks can be mitigated with proper planning and design. These are not “silver bullet” corrections you can make to your next project, but they are pretty close.