IT Project Failures Are IT Failures

While conducting research for Volume 1 of my first book[1], I wanted to investigate the root causes of IT project failures. I was completely convinced – and still am– that these failures are significantly related to the quality of the work previously done by the teams laboring on these endeavors. In other words, the recurring struggle that IT teams face, often leading to their inability to successfully deliver IT projects on time, is directly linked to the nature (and the qualities) of the IT assets already in place. I found a wealth of information relating to project failures, as well as a disappointing revelation.

The Puzzling Root Cause Inventory

This disconcerting realization was that the complexity of existing IT assets is rarely mentioned. By far, technological issues do not appear frequently in the majority of literature on project failure. Just for the sake of it, I performed an unscientific and unsystematic survey of professional blogs and magazines, and came up with a list of 190 determinants of causes for failure. The reasons range from insufficient sponsor involvement, to faulty governance, communications, engagement, etc. I found nothing really surprising, albeit depressing in some ways.  Of these reasons, a mere 11 were related to the technology itself, while one, and only one, referred to the underestimation of the complexity.

This number inaccurately reflects reality.  It doesn’t make sense that, for technology-based projects, there is such a thin representation of technology-related issues. The proportions don’t match.  It doesn’t fit with the reality in the corporate trenches on a day-to-day basis. If your platforms are made of too many disjointed components, or were built by siloed teams; if their design and implementation was poorly documented to cut on costs, or standard compliance practices were ill-controlled, then they are bound to contribute to failure. If your internal IT teams have a hard time understanding their own creations, or frequently uncover new technical components that were never taken into account, how can you be surprised when schedule slippages occur in their projects?  The state of what is in place plays a major role —and it’s definitely not in a proportion of 1:190.

A Definite Project Management Skew

This gap in the documented understanding is due to a project management bias in the identification of root causes of IT project failure.   This is quite understandable, since the project management community is at the forefront of determining project success and failure. Project managers are mainly assessed for on-time and on-budget project delivery[2]. They consider underperformance seriously, and that is why available knowledge on root causes is disproportionately skewed toward non-technical sources.

Project managers tackle failure as a genuine project management issue, and the solutions they find are consequently colored by their project management practice and knowledge.

I wouldn’t want to undervalue the importance of the skills, the processes and good practices of project management. But we need to recognize the foundational importance of the assets that are already in place. They are are not just another risk management plan variable to take into account.  They the base matter from which an IT project starts from, along with business objectives and derived requirements. On any given workday, IT staff are not working “on a project”; they are heads down plowing through existing assets or creating new ones that need to fit with the rest.

The Base Matter Matters a Lot

If IT projects were delivering houses, the assets in place would be the geological nature of the lot, the street in front of the lot, the water and sewage mains under the pavement, the posts and cables delivering electricity, and the availability of raw materials. Such parameters are well known when estimating real estate projects.  If you did not take into account that the street was unavailable at the start date of the construction project, that there was no supply of electricity, that the lot was in fact a swamp, or that there was no cement factory within a 400 mile radius of your construction site, you can be sure that the project would run over-schedule and over-budget.  The state of your existing set of assets creates “surprises” of the same magnitude as the construction analogies above.  When your assumptions about the things in place are confounded because quality standards weren’t followed or up-to-date documentation was unavailable, your estimates will suffer.

Any corporate IT project that doesn’t start from a clean slate[3] —and most aren’t— runs into issues related to the state of the assets already in place.

The unnecessary complexity induced by poorly documented or contorted solutions is not a view of the mind.  It is the harsh reality that corporate IT teams face on a daily basis.  It is the matter that undermines their capacity to estimate what has to be done, that cripples their ability to execute at the speed you wish they delivered.

IT Quality Is an IT Accountability

Although project success is, by all means, a project management objective, the state of an IT portfolio isn’t.

The quality of what has been delivered in the past, and how it helps or impedes project success is not a project management accountability. It’s a genuine corporate IT issue.

So tossing it all to project management accountabilities is an easy way out. If important business projects are bogged down by an organization’s inadequate IT portfolio, it’s primarily an IT problem, and secondly a project risk or issue. Project Managers with slipping schedules and blown up budgets took failures seriously enough to identify 190 potential root causes, and devise ways to tackle them.  Nobody in Corporate IT has ever done anything close to that concerning IT complexity or any other quality criteria applicable to IT assets.

This vacuum has nothing to do with skills, since IT people have all the expertise required to identify the root causes and work out ways to reduce unwanted complexity.

It’s all about having the incentives to fix the problem.  Reasons to solve are not just weak, but outweighed by motivations to not do anything about it[4].


[1] More details on the book available on my blog’s book page.

[2] Also detailed in the book, or in this recent article.

[3] See this other article the clean slate myth.

[4] For more details on this, take a look at my latest book.