Why IT Projects Still Fail

“Despite new methodologies and management techniques meant to head off spectacular failures, critical technical initiatives still fall flat at an alarming rate. Here’s how IT can learn from its mistakes. “

Despite the use of agile development and related management methods, IT projects still face considerable risk of failure.  In the past IT failures were highlighted by over budget and behind schedule large scale implementations.  These failures still occur as show with IBM’s $110 million upgrade to the State of Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system which was never completed.  IT failures today are a little different due to agile development, continuous delivery and the fail-fast movement that changed the approach to IT projects.  These iterative methodologies minimize the risk of projects veering off course, but regardless of any methodology some project seemed destined for failure, just in previously unforeseen ways.

A Cautionary Tale

Chris Masters is the current CIO for the City of Corona California and references an 18 month Saas implementation as an example of a project seemingly on track for success end in failure.  According to Chris, “We thought we had all the [necessary] buy-in and knew what the outcome was supposed to be, but we got to project end and the sales force didn’t want it. There was an extreme amount of resistance. Top management was on board, but there was some distrust among the users.”  While the project was on time and on budget, it was deemed a failure and cancelled.  

“Failure can take many different shapes and forms,” McMasters says. “It doesn’t matter how shiny the product is or if it does a thousand things. To me, if we’re not providing the outcome the end user expects, that’s failure.” 

The ultimate reason for the project failure was focusing too much on execution and not enough on marketing the benefits across the organization to have a more extensive buy-in.  Upper management was onboard, but there was resistance among the end users which was not adequately addressed.  Chris states, “We weren’t as engaged as we could have been. We could have teamed up better with the business.” I personally have experience near project failure as a result of buy-in from executive leadership, but none from the end users and other stakeholders.  Having multilateral support for a project that has organizational-wide impact is vital for it’s success. 

These two examples are hardly rarities when it comes to project failure. The 2017 Pulse of the Profession report by the The Project Management Institute states that 28 percent of strategic initiatives overseen by survey participants were seen as failures.  The chart below shows a breakdown of what the 3,000 project managers who responded attributed to project failure. 

Why Projects Fail (PM Survey Responses)

The most sobering finding on the report is that as a result of project failures, organizations wasted an average of $97 million for every $1 billion invested.  That’s an improvement from the $122 million wasted in 2016, but a significant amount of money lost. I believe the report along with firsthand accounts of project failure show that regardless of methodology, tried and true project management standards can still be the different between success and failure.