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The Root Cause of IT Project Failure: An Analysis of Causes and Consequences

written by: Bernard L Williams Ph.D., PMP • edited by: Ronda Bowen • updated: 12/31/2012

There are those people who believe that hope is a method. Seasoned IT project managers realize that hope does not accomplish the job. It is a focused understanding of what works and what doesn't. This article outlines some of the causes of IT project failures and provides some ways to avoid it.

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    Why are IT projects so prone to fail? There are certain things in life that just seem to go together. Peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, steak and potatoes, Information Technology projects and failure. IT project failure is an ever present problem that by some estimates costs American companies more billions of dollars each year. An article by Jorge Dominguez points out how little we have progressed over the years. He shows that according to the Standish Group's latest Chaos Report (a report done each year on IT project and failures and their causes) 68% of all IT projects were either challenged or failed outright.

    In today's connected economy, IT project failure impacts everyone. Ever spend a long time waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles? A quick Google search of IT project failure and DMV will reveal several project failures costing $40 million or more at various DMV's across the country. The cost of theses project failures are passed on to consumers, by way of time lost waiting in long lines, and wasted tax payer dollars.

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    What is IT Project Failure?

    Defining IT project failure has been somewhat subjective. There are some that believe that failure can be defined in quantitative terms such as exceeding the budget, the schedule, or failure to deliver contracted/documented functionality. This definition has been questioned by IT practitioners who deliver systems that work, deliver on agreed upon requirements, but fail in another category. A simplified, general definition could be, a project that costs a great deal more than you expected in terms of time or money, and does not satisfy the end users.

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    The Root Cause of Project Failure

    The three most important factors in IT project failure are people, people and people. According to Sue Young in a 2003 ComputerWorld article, all problems are people problems even the technical ones. There are several research studies that support that view.

    IT project management, like other types of project management relies on the successful coordination of people to achieve business results and deliver the expected value. In their paper, "New Possibilities for Project Management Theory" Cicmil and Hodgson point out that project management is largely a social activity. It is a social construct. If the project fails to deliver the expected value, it is easy to simply blame the software, or the hardware rather than the people involved who failed to deliver. If you look at the myriad of reports and research done on the topic of IT project failure, all of the causes identified can be distilled down to people and the way they think and behave.

    Issues in IT project failure come from the cognitive flaws that all people have. Three cognitive issues that can work to impact IT projects are linear thinking, escalating commitment to a failing course of action, and delusional optimism.

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    In this continued article, Bernard Williams, Ph.D., PMP discusses the cognitive flaws that root cause analysis has revealed leads to IT Project failure. Linear thinking, escalation commitment theory, and delusional optimism are all problematic when introduced to the complexities of IT projects.
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    Linear Thinking, Escalating Commitments and Delusional Optimism

    Linear Thinking

    Linear thinking is that type of thinking that allows us to to make decisions based on computations that adhere to known rules. If you get 20 miles to the gallon in your car and you need to travel 20 miles, you know that you need to buy at least one gallon of gas. Thats linear thinking. Linear thinking does not take into account the road conditions that may impact your mileage or the fact that you may get lost. Linear thinking tells us that if it will take 2 developers 2 months to deliver the next version of the software application, it will take 4 developers 1 month. It is the old IT adage: "It takes 9 months for 1 woman to have a baby. Nine women cannot make a baby in 1 month."

    Escalation Commitment Theory

    The second cognitive issue that can impact IT projects is escalating commitment to a failing course of action. This happens when people are given negative information about a particular choice they have made and choose to ignore or discount it. Remember that person your best friend didn't like and told you not to date? Each time you choose to continue the relationship you were making an escalating commitment to a failing course of action. We do it in relationships, and we do it in IT projects. Think about the numerous times you have heard the following conversation between an IT person and their boss. "Boss: Are you sure we will be able to get all of that coding done before the end of the quarter?... IT professional: Of course we will boss... I have my best people on it."

    Delusional Optimism

    This occurs when IT project team members or project sponsors believe in magic. Pragmatism and practicality give way to revenue or political demands and the Death March (an IT project that uses brute force to achieve project success yet is destined to fail) begins. An article titled "Delusions of Success" in the Harvard Business Review pointed out that during the planning stages of a large initiative, executive routinely exaggerate the benefits and minimize the costs when reporting on the impact of a new project. This act alone sets the team up for failure. Another example is when a project team has been given 6 months to deliver a solution that should really take 1 year. Rather than find ways to bridge the gap (reduce scope, increase the timeline etc), project sponsors agree to the terms and "believe" that the team will be able to accomplish the goal. While the project is active, nobody wants to state the obvious (this is crazy and is not going to work) so people just keep showing up and moving widgets in an attempt to make something happen.

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    In the conclusion of his article on IT Project failure, Dr. Bernard L. Williams PMP discusses how to improve your chances at IT project success by mitigating some of the root causes.
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    Avoiding IT Project Failure

    While the picture may appear dismal for IT practitioners-there is hope. Through the utilization of best practices and appropriate methodologies, IT project leaders can reduce the risk of failure on their projects. Research in this area indicates that strong leadership, prescient risk management, and thoughtful change management can go a long way to get people moving in the same direction. In the article Using Risk Management Plans to to Prevent Project Failure, fellow writerJoe Tylor discusses truning uncertainty in IT projects into Certainty.


    One of the primary reasons that organizations fail to successfully implement new systems is a lack of management direction and focus. Executive management cannot simply dictate the direction and expect the rest of the organization to carry it out. They must be actively engaged in the efforts to ensure that there is employee buy-in and focus.

    Risk management

    One of the most neglected areas of project management is risk planning. Project managers simply are not paranoid enough. The use of qualitative and quantitative risk identification coupled with appropriate mitigation planning can prepare a team for the "known-unknowns", and help identify whether a project should be taken on/continued or not.

    Change management

    It is amazing to see how often organizations embark on huge system implementations without ensuring that the team is ready/capable of assimilating and adopting the new solution. Organizational leaders make the flawed assumption that if they say "do it", the members of the organization will make sure that it gets done. There are many a failed IT project that shipwrecked on the shores of end-user opposition, never to set sail again. Management must ensure that the organizational change that will be required as a result of the implementation is effectively and proactively managed. There are many tools and techniques available to help organizational leaders accomplish this.
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    Ideas for the Future

    It is clear that we have a long way to go before we can ay that we are good at implementing IT projects. The ball is in managements court to make a significant impact on the dismal rate of IT project success. Over the years we have improved but not much. A 2009 report from the Standish group indicates that the project success rate has move to approximately 32%. This is a great improvement from the 16% documented in their original 1994 report on the topic. It will take education, training and discipline to turn the tide in the area of IT project failure. It would be very interesting to hear what ideas you have for reducing the risk of IT project failure.