Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why IT Projects fail.

I'm a great fan of the TV show, Grand Designs.   The first time I saw the show, my partner and I had just started to build our new home.   Architect designed, bespoke everything.   Should have been a disaster, but it was a dream build.  So why are there so many near disasters on the show.   Well I guess they vet the people so that they have a show with plenty of tension, problems to solve, and interesting characters.   

The things that usually go wrong on Grand Designs are that people try to build homes that they can't afford, mainly because some problem occurs, or they are silly enough to start knowing they don’t have enough money!   Sometimes they have to rework mistakes.   Sometimes the design is overly complex, or poorly estimated, or hard to execute.   Sometimes the people and their ideas are just plain crazy.   So which were the standouts that just worked?   

One was the guy who with his own hands built a Cruck house in the middle of the woods, whose own deep technical skills and a modest expectations built a truly beautiful home for less than the price of a medium sized car.   Another was the ex-chairman of Wilkinson Sword whose home I didn't much care for, but whose project came in band on time and budget; he knew how to manage.

Which brings me to IT projects.   

I make the building design analogy after being inspired to by a paper by Dr. Paul Dorsey (click here)  - on the "Top 10 Reasons Why Systems Projects Fail".   Its a bit dated - its from 1995 - but all the studies out there, up to and including 2012, indicate that a remarkably high proportion of IT projects fail - up to 80% some say.   Others say that at least 30% fail completely and another 50% fail to deliver expected benefits.   There are many reasons.   In 2011 Michael Krigsman reported on a study in his blog (click here)  that the top 5 reasons IT projects fail are;

1. Requirements: Unclear, lack of agreement, lack of priority, contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise.

2. Resources: Lack of resources, resource conflicts, turnover of key resources, poor planning.

3. Schedules: Too tight, unrealistic, overly optimistic.

4. Planning: Based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, poor estimates.

5. Risks: Unidentified or assumed, not managed.

This is as good a list as any and is consistent with what most other studies report.   In my mind it all comes down to this; IT folk and the business executives overseeing them do not apply commonsense project management process to IT Projects.   Partly this is because the IT people don't really understand the things that are important to their business clients, and the business executives often don't think that IT is all that important to them, either because they don’t understand it or don’t want to understand it.   Paul Dorsey talks about this lack of engagement as a big reason IT projects are often set up to fail.

Dorsey also talks about the importance of having independent advice.   It is ALWAYS in the interest of the project team, internal or contracted, to present a positive view of the project - right up until when it fails (my view).

So what does building a house have to do with this.   If you are going to build a bespoke home you need to get expert help.   An expert designer (architect) even though they cost a mint, will be cheaper in the long run.   An expert Project Manager to co-ordinate all the activities and trades, and an expert builder who is technically knowledgeable are critical.   Then get in a room with all of them and make sure they are all talking before you shell out for anything!   We did this on our place, that's why it went without a hitch.

The same is true for an IT Project, be it big or small.   Invest in design, proper process and great people.   It doesn’t guarantee success, but not having it guarantees failure.   Oh, and get independent advice and audit.   You can give me a call for that.

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