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.

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In the age of agile development, devops and related management techniques, is IT project failure even a thing anymore? The answer, sadly, is yes.

In the past, IT failures often meant high-priced flops, with large-scale software implementations going on way too long and way over budget. Those failures can and still do happen. Case in point: IBM’s never-completed $110 million upgrade to the State of Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system.

But IT failure today is frequently different than in it was in the past, as agile, devops, continuous delivery and the fail-fast movement have changed the nature of how IT handles projects. These iterative management methodologies and philosophies are meant to minimize the chances of projects going spectacularly awry, but the fact of the matter is that IT projects still fail, just in new and sometimes more insidious ways.

Here’s what seven IT leaders and analysts say about the state of IT project failure today.

A cautionary tale

Chris McMasters, currently the CIO for the City of Corona, Calif., cites the case of an 18-month-long implementation of a SaaS customer relationship management system a few years ago at a previous employer, where IT worked with the sales department leadership to understand business needs and define requirements.

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“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,” he says.

The cloud-based CRM was declared a bust and scrapped — showing that even when projects are on time and on budget, they can still fail.

“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.”

McMasters says success would have been more likely had IT focused more on marketing the benefits of the new system rather than on project execution. “We weren’t as engaged as we could have been. We could have teamed up better with the business,” he says.

As a failed project, that CRM implementation hardly stands alone. The Project Management Institute’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession report found that 28 precent of strategic initiatives overseen by survey respondents were deemed outright failures. Some 37 percent of the more than 3,000 project management professionals who responded cited a lack of clearly defined and/or achievable milestones and objectives to measure progress as the cause of failure, followed by poor communication (19%), lack of communication by senior management (18%), employee resistance (14%) and insufficient funding (9%).

And speaking of money, the same report found that due to poor project performance, organizations waste an average of $97 million for every $1 billion invested. That’s better than 2016’s $122 million in waste, but still a significant amount of cash lost.

Factors for failure

Despite new methodologies and management techniques meant to head off spectacular failures, many of the factors that traditionally put IT projects at risk of failure are still present in the enterprise, experts say. Inadequate resources, overly aggressive timelines, underestimated costs, overlooked requirements, unanticipated complications, poor governance and human mistakes such as bad code can all lead to project failure.

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