Project Failure: Causes and Symptoms
Dana Scully, Fox Mulder and the F.B.I. The X-Files team demonstrates the value of clinical analysis to determine cause and effect. Mulder is concentrating on mixing it with different aliens, shape changers and mutant worms. Scully is often back at base dispassionately looking at the many bodies that are found in each episode. Scully’s knowledge of autopsy and pathology is often the crucial evidence they need to find the truth.
Our group reviewed 20 major projects over the past 18 year, much like Mulder or Scully. These reviews were not conducted as an academic exercise or controlled experiment, but were done “in the heat” of the battle. Our clients wanted to know how they could fix the problems or prevent future ones from happening. Our clients and we have been able to understand the main issues in computing through the pathology of failed projects.
Our group discovered that there are common causes of project failure, a common pattern for project degradation and failure, and common symptoms that indicate that projects are failing. These findings are inconsistent with many articles and books that address project failure.
We have found that most projects fail due to people and project management concerns, rather than technical concerns like development methodologies, technology platforms and tools. Gerry Weinberg once said that there are three main causes of failure: people, people, and people.
The failed projects
We reviewed projects in all business sectors, including retail banking, merchant banking and insurance.
The total amount of investment lost or misdirected in 20 projects was more than US $ 1 Billion. We have evidence that this figure could be twice as high if business experts [users] were included, as well unpaid overtime and additional work done by team members.
Surprisingly, only 7 out of 20 projects received any media coverage (computer or general) and each project lost more than $100,000,000. There was no evidence that certain business sectors are more susceptible to project failure, or that private sector organizations have a higher rate of failures than those in the public or government sectors.
A new definition of project failure
Most definitions of project loss focus on the traditional concerns of:
Meeting requirements [data and functions]
Budgeting is important.
Delivering within the estimated deadlines.
All 20 projects failed within this narrow definition of success. However, our group has a more comprehensive and expanded definition.
This definition distinguishes between an internal or software factory view and an external, added value chain or service view. The fact that a project meets the requirements [objectives], deadlines, and budget is not a measure for the product or added value. It is simply an indicator of the internal development process’ effectiveness. We have looked at a number of projects that were successful in meeting objectives, budget, and deadlines. However, these projects did not deliver any business benefits or added value to clients. These projects had failed in our terms and in the business client terms.
Other projects that we reviewed met the functional and data requirements on time and within budget, but had a significant degradation in quality. The systems were not properly tested, documentation and training were not provided, and screen design and implementation were poor.