Why Projects Fail

Why Projects Fail

IT projects do fail, and you will indeed be fortunate in your career if you do not become involved in a major failure Large IT projects are major undertakings with lots of people involved. There are risks in any human venture of such a scale and complexity. On the other hand, provided you survive, witnessing project failures is one of the most educational processes that you can experience, as long as you can step back and learn from the experience; growth through trauma is not to be recommended, but trauma without growth is wasted Experience of failure gives a sense of realism, and helps you avoid these failures in the future.

The statistics on project failure are frightening. Some sources quote IT failure rates well in excess of 50%. The effects of failure are frightening too I have worked in three organizations where massive redundancies have come about through IT project failures, with job losses both within the IT departments and elsewhere, and in one case I lost my job too, I recall recently a young colleague, barely three years out of university, with sagacity beyond his years wielding the second severance package of his brief career The UK Office of Government Commerce (2001) cites a number of causes of project failure that we will examine below. It is notable that these are primarily organizational failures, not technology failures. Usually a development team with adequate skills, clear direction, and sufficient time will produce a working system that meets needs.


When someone authorizes a multi-million pound project, you would think that they would clear on what they are getting. Alas, it would be nice if that were true. Many projects, not just in IT, are poorly defined at the outset. Lack of definition comes from not providing clear goals and clear deliverables prior to authoriza- tion. Often a project is authorized on minimal information. The project as it evolves then produces a series of disappointments, leading it into repeated crises and ultimately

Over ambition is a common problem. To engage the various stakeholders, a great deal is promised Lots of stakeholders have high expectations and become a problem to manage. The shortfall in deliverables and/or delay in achieving them again lead to disappointment and probable cancellation.

Over-distant end goals with no intermediate deliverables and/or review points can cause the project to deviate, or make it prone to cancellation. There is no reality check built in to long projects. It may seem obvious that a project should its goals endlessly and do a frequent reality check. In large projects this can be a problem, and when political feuds start it is difficult to keep the project on track DECISION-


Management by committee, with consensus required on detailed project decisions leads to indecision and drift. Clear goals need to come from the sponsor, and the project manager needs authority to implement them as she sees fit. ‘No decision’ in a project is usually the worst decision, because a bad decision teaches the project team while no decision results in drift and argument.


Milestones can be set too far apart, and slippage is not managed. With too few

milestones it is impossible to track progress. Plans can be constructed that are

based on deadlines that people do not believe reflect reality, so they are not taken seriously. Missed deadlines are explained away, and deliverables get shunted further and further towards the end of the project. The prospect of failure is not acknowledged until someone in a senior position notices and initiates an investi gation that ultimately cancels the project. In lengthy projects requirements can change. If there is no mechanism for acknowledging these and re-steering the project, they may get tagged on as

changes at the end of the project. Ultimately the project may deliver to the orig

inal goals, but not to the revised goals

Risks are often overlooked or minimized. These can cause unnecessary delays

ot failure to deliver parts of the project. Contingency planning can be omitted or not applied to problems as they arise. The project then delivers only a partial solu tion or misses a critical deadline. All of these are symptoms of weak project management. A project manager with

inappropriate experience or skill will allow these problems to arise and not take



Selection of suppliers is critical. Often the suppliers are chosen on inappropriate grounds Systems are often very dependent on the quality of supplied components or tools, and that includes the quality of the supplying organization. Too often suppliers are chosen on the glitz of their marketing and not on the quality of their products, services and support. Too little time is spent scrutinizing suppliers at the procurement stage. Inappropriate linkages with suppliers can cause significant problems, either by suppliers being kept out of decision-making or suppliers becoming too involved in decision-making.


A key potential problem in any project is the disconnection between the project team and those for whom the project is being developed. This leads to an ‘us and them’ situation. Project staff can produce what they think their client needs Clients become detached from what is realizable and expect too much.

Some project teams have a culture of hiding problems and Metalwho explaining away risks. There is a habit of stumbling backwards into the future, and not anticipating problems before they become major issues. An opposite problem is one where everyone is crying wolf all the time, and project managers become deaf to the endless complaints.