12 early warning signs of IT failure

High rates of IT project failure persist because most organizations don't understand the real reasons why their projects fail. Don't ignore the early warning signs of failure; they're a loud siren if you listen carefully.

Warning siren

High rates of IT project failure persist because most organizations don't understand the real reasons why their projects fail.

Executives often blame the project manager for planning or budgeting errors without recognizing their own contributions to failure. Don't ignore the early warning signs of failure; they're a loud siren if you listen carefully.

A research paper by two academics and a business consultant, Early Warning Signs of IT Project Failure: The Dominant Dozen, sheds light on the underlying causes behind many failures. The paper provides a framework for examining early-stage IT projects to identify and prevent downstream problems.

Sensitivity toward early warning signs [EWSs] can increase project success rates by giving advance notice of potential points of failure. For example, the team can shore up weak executive sponsorship if it identifies the problem sufficiently early. The paper groups causes of failure into two categories: people-related risks and process-related risks.

Here are the top people-related risks:

  1. Lack of top management support
  2. Weak project manager
  3. No stakeholder involvement and/or participation
  4. Weak commitment of project team
  5. Team members lack requisite knowledge and/or skills
  6. Subject matter experts are over-scheduled

And the most important process-related risks:

  1. Lack of documented requirements and/or success criteria
  2. No change control process (change management)
  3. Ineffective schedule planning and/or management
  4. Communication breakdown among stakeholders
  5. Resources assigned to a higher priority project
  6. No business case for the project

Note that technology failures aren't included anywhere in the list. As the authors say:

[I]T projects almost never fail because of technical causes, despite the fact that people and process problems may manifest technically.... Technical risks cannot be eliminated, but they can be managed.

Truer words were never spoken! We live in an imperfect world of sometimes-frail technology; software has bugs, the cloud goes down, and technology glitches interfere with well-laid plans. The real key to project success: strong project leadership combined with a top-down organizational commitment to instituting thoughtful project processes.

If this seems easy or trivial to you, then I suggest following the lead of Nepal Airlines' risk mitigation practices. Your results are likely to be the same as theirs.

[Via Francine McKenna. Image via victorysiren.com.]

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