How to Know If an IT Project Is about to Fail

By Geoffrey James

Don’t tell your customers, but the failure rate for custom IT projects is frankly grim. According to the Standish Group, a Boston-based research firm that has conducted extensive surveys of IT professionals, only 27 percent of software IT projects are completed on time, on budget and with full functionality. Another 33 percent are completed, but late, over budget or with scaled-down features and functions. And fully 40 percent of IT software projects fail completely, often consuming millions of dollars as they go under.

Does that failure rate sound too high? If so, then your firm is better than most. Still, even if your software is the best in the world and your implementation staff the most brilliant on the planet, you’re probably going to run into situations where a project goes bad. But forewarned is forearmed. If you know that a project is about to fail, you can take steps to arm-twist your management for more resources, begin a campaign of damage control, or maybe brush up your resume. Here’s a quiz based upon research from Standish Group International that can help you assess whether or not an IT project is likely to be completed successfully:

Answer the following questions Yes or No:

  1. Are the end users involved in the design, implementation and testing of the project?
  2. Does the project have the full support of the customer’s top management?
  3. Does the project have clear objectives that deal with hard-core business issues?
  4. Did the customer rigorously define their basic requirements before you began the project?
  5. Is the customer’s IT staff trained and competent?
  6. Does the project have small milestones that can be achieved and tracked?
  7. Does the project have an experienced project manager?
  8. Have you and the customer thoroughly planned the design, implementation and rollout?
  9. Does somebody at the customer site have full ownership of the success of the project?
  10. Are outside management consultants heavily involved in the project?

You start with a score of zero.

Question 1: If Yes, add 20
Question 2: If Yes, add 15
Question 3: If Yes, add 15
Question 4: If Yes, add 10
Question 5: If Yes, add 10
Question 6: If Yes, add 10
Question 7: If Yes, add 5
Question 8: If Yes, add 5
Question 9: If Yes, add 5
Question 10: If Yes, subtract 25

80-100 Congratulations! The project has a very good chance of success. However, don’t let up. Make sure that the project keeps hitting those milestones. And get ready to ask the customer for some references when the project is complete.

60-85 The project has a possibility of success, but there may be trouble ahead. You might want to revisit some of your assumptions about planning and staffing and create a get-well plan in case things go awry. You still might succeed, but don’t buy the champagne yet.

30-55 Welcome to the land of the average IT project. Let’s face it, the project is going to be late, and over budget, and the system probably won’t work as advertised. It’s time to start resetting management’s expectations, and you can forget about that party.

0-25 Get that resume ready. You have a disaster on your hands. Your best bet is to get the customer to cancel the project and work with them on damage control with their top management (and yours). It’s not going to be pleasant, but nobody said that selling software would be easy.