Why do so many projects fail?

By Graham Smith | 26 May 2015

In this day and age, with all the technological innovation and project management skills at our fingertips, the sheer number of projects that fail is unbelievable. Some experts estimate that up to 70 per cent of corporate technology projects either fail to achieve their business objectives or fail completely, crashing and burning in mid flight.

And wow, have their been some failures. Last year the BBC pulled the plug on its Digital Media Initiative (DMI) a project that was meant to produce new in-house production tools for the organisation, moving it away from videotape – but not before wasting almost £100 million of taxpayers’ money. Another eye watering example is the NHS “National Programme for IT” which was scrapped back in 2011, after £12 billion was spent trying to implement a centralised IT system - the largest civilian IT project of its kind at the time. The money would have paid the salary of 60,000 nurses for a decade.

So project failures can be significant and have massive repercussions. But they also happen on a much smaller scale, every day, for most organisations. Why do so many projects fail to achieve what they set out to?

Lots of work has been done to try and unearth the reasons why. The general consensus is that it is rarely one reason, often a combination of factors. But there are some glaringly obvious issues organisations need to bear in mind if their project is to be successful:

  • Lack of executive sponsorship: like any strategic military exercise, an IT project needs a general, someone to keep their eye on the bigger picture and rally the troops. The reality is that there is rarely strong enough executive sponsorship - the person who will get the project over the line and ensure that it delivers what the organisation intended.
  • Poor business plan: again, a common failing is that business objectives are rarely clearly defined or even achievable – this makes it nigh on impossible to manage the outcomes.
  • Lack of user involvement: often, IT departments are given systems to install or upgrade, with little or no involvement from the business team who will actually be using it. Having user input is vital.
  • Bad planning and project management failings: having no clear plan and therefore no foresight is a commonality in many projects. We can’t emphasise how important sitting down and planning is – it can’t be rushed – and having good project management to ensure it reaches its goals.
  • Delivery capabilities: it can be tricky getting the people you need for a complex transformation programme - finding the right talent internally and attracting new people with the right capabilities is a real challenge.  It is vital that compromises are not made and the right people selected for the team. 

Where project failure is concerned, there is no holy grail. But if organisations put in the hours to prepare properly, have the right involvement from the business, scope out requirements and objectives, put the right plan to achieve them and the leadership in place to oversee it all, that can’t be a bad place to start.

Read this report that explores the banking industry’s approach to business case development and begins to uncover the important factors that lead to successful projects.

By Graham Smith, Director, Certeco

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