How to Spot a Failing Project

Often, the difference between success and failure is spotting critical early warning signs that a project is in trouble. Here are a few ways to identify the symptoms.

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Tue, July 17, 2007

CIO — Usually, when an IT project fails, management is the last to know. But eventually, like a fish left too long in the refrigerator, the failure becomes all too obvious. When the situation reaches that point, your only option is the IT equivalent of pulling everything out of the refrigerator and scrubbing it out with baking soda.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, project management is getting better. More projects are succeeding, fewer projects are failing outright, and projects are returning more of the IT dollar invested.

Still, only about one-third of all projects are complete successes. Often, the difference between success and failure is spotting the critical early warning signs that a project is in trouble. Here's a quick look at some of the earliest symptoms that all is not right with your "fish"—and what you can do about it before you have to break out the baking soda.

Be Reassured: Failure Isn't Preordained
The good news is that things are getting better. The most widely used measure of IT project success is the Chaos Report from The Standish Group International. The biennial (once every two years) report is based on a worldwide survey of several thousand medium to large companies. "We've measured project success every two years since 1994," says Jim Johnson, Standish Group chairman.

The original study (which is still sometimes quoted as if it were current) was shocking. In 1994, the researchers found that 31 percent of the IT projects were flat failures. That is, they were abandoned before completion and produced nothing useful. Only about 16 percent of all projects were completely successful: delivering applications on time, within budget and with all the originally specified features.

"As of 2006, the absolute failure rate is down to 19 percent," Johnson says. "The success rate is up to 35 percent." The remaining 46 percent are what the Standish Group calls "challenged": projects that didn't meet the criteria for total success but delivered a useful product.

"We've gotten better for several reasons," Johnson says. "The whole discipline around project management is becoming more of a profession. We're understanding the process better. We're getting more articulate users who can describe what they want better. And we have some very good tools, like UML, that can help the user."

The Internet plays a role as well, according to Scott Johnson, CEO of AtTask, an Orem, Utah, maker of project management tools.

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