How to Avoid Software Development Failures

By Diann Daniel
Wed, November 15, 2006

CIO — Excessive pressure and unrealistic, often arbitrary, deadlines from IT senior management rank as the top reasons software projects fail—and senior managers know it, according to a recent Cutter Consortium survey. So how can senior managers break the cycle? To avoid making bad decisions, they must learn more about the software development process and get involved with project development reviews, Cutter concluded after surveying senior managers and their employees at 100 development organizations.

Just 39 percent of senior managers consider themselves "very knowledgeable" about software development, and just 28 percent of nonsenior managers give their senior managers that rating. Too few senior managers understand the development process, like estimating project costs and creating realistic schedules, according to Cutter.

In fact, 35 percent of respondents named impossible deadlines, excessive project scope or a limited budget as the main reason for software project failures.

Lack of senior management involvement—especially at the right times—fuels unrealistic expectations, Cutter analysts say. In 38 percent of companies responding to Cutter’s survey, senior managers just occasionally involve themselves in projects, checking in only for major problems. And just 27 percent take part in project development reviews—a crucial point where problems can be proactively addressed to head off failures, says Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant E.M. Bennatan.

"The whole idea of project management review is creation of opportunity for senior managers to get involved," he says.

Best Practices

Educate senior management. Create (at minimum) a half-day software development course, to be held every quarter. Get buy-in from the business side by emphasizing costs of failed projects and by making software development education a corporate goal.

Communicate appropriately. Oversimplifying software development puts you in danger of giving an oversimplified solution. Understand your senior managers’ learning and listening styles, and examine how much information is appropriate at each stage.

Create a project disaster plan. Every project should have an early warning system in place, and danger signs should be communicated to all appropriate participants. When a project goes off track, don’t be afraid to stop the project, define minimum goals, rebuild the team and revise the plan.

Software Project Killers: Unrealistic Deadlines

Poorly conceived project time frames top the reasons why development efforts fail.
Our senior management pressures the project manager and/or the development team to agree to impossible deadlines, excessive project scope, or a limited budget: 35%
Our customers or marketing department request too many changes during project development: 17%
Our developers do not follow an organized development process: 13%
Source: Cutter Consortium

Absentee Oversight

Too few senior managers get actively involved at the crucial project development review stage. Most participate in:
Resolution of major problems: 69%
Project budgets (establishing and expending): 67%
Project planning (scheduling, budgeting, staffing, etc.): 41%
Project development reviews: 27%

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