The proliferation of IT has massively increased the need for effective project management, yet a significant number of IT projects are regarded as failures. Eddie Kilkelly, Chief Operating Officer at ILX Group plc, examines the common pitfalls and outlines how organisations can help turn around a failing project.

IT industry expert Roger Sessions estimated the total annual cost of worldwide IT project failures at $6.2 trillion dollars, in spite of the availability of best practice models specifically developed for IT environments and the rise of professional project managers.

However, it’s true that IT projects suffer from particular challenges; large scale projects are costly so they are subject to stringent and lengthy approval processes.

Meanwhile, technology continues to change, the competitive environment changes and in response the organisation’s priorities change. So it is unsurprising that even a carefully specified and well-run project has the potential to be unfit for purpose by the time it is implemented.

Be vigilant

To avoid this, it is essential to check regularly whether the project still meets the organisation’s needs. It’s better to recognise a discrepancy in the desired deliverables, radically amend the project plan and deliver the project late if that will deliver organisational benefit.

If that is not possible, it is better to cut your losses by cancelling the project. Many corporate cultures need to change to view failure as an opportunity to deliver success.

At an individual level, too, managers and employees need to be able to flag problems. It is human nature to persevere and think that throwing more resources at a problem will help to fix it. 

If the original problem is a lack of appropriate resourcing then that may be true, but in most cases it is just likely to increase the costs associated with eventual project failure; therefore the corporate culture must make it easier for employees to take that difficult step and flag potential problems.   

Develop effective teams

Another major problem in IT projects is ensuring the right skills mix. Teams, not individual project managers, deliver successful projects and they will include a variety of people who have been seconded to the project because of their skills or knowledge. However, project failure is often attributed to a lack of context-specific skills. 

A professional project manager may have the right core skills to manage an IT project, but not the IT-sector specific skills and knowledge that will enable them to employ their skills effectively. The same holds true for all members of the project team - do they have the right skills for this specific project? In the IT sector, where there are significant skills shortages, this can be a particular problem. 

To overcome this issue, the IT or project manager must specify the roles and skills required for successful delivery of the project. Each team member must be evaluated against these requirements and any gaps in skills or knowledge must be addressed. 

This strategy is not flawless; a team member may move to a new job or be seconded to another project and need to be replaced, or an existing gap may not be identified. If a project seems to be going off-course, it is worth re-examining the skills mix to ensure that that is not the source of the problem. 

In addition, the team needs to work and communicate effectively, so it’s essential that team members share a common understanding of what’s required of their roles, what needs to be done in order to meet the project objectives, the systems they should use and how they should communicate with each other.

Ideally, all team members will be trained to use one common approach in an organisation-specific way, using the correct terminology. Embedding shared methodologies and language is especially important in an increasingly global business environment, where many IT projects are rolled out across geographical borders and time zones. 

When skills or communication issues arise, online coaching and mentoring or social networking can be useful for building team spirit and sharing guidance.

Additional training may turnaround a project that is going off-course much more effectively than increasing headcount, which only serves to increase cost and complexity. However, time is at a premium, so any training should be available remotely, at a place and time of the learner’s convenience, and use engaging, interactive content.

What is failure?

Projects can be turned around if managers act quickly, but equally a project may be labelled a failure because the original timescale or budget suffered modest over-runs, when it actually delivers twice the anticipated level of efficiencies.

Is this really a failure or is it time for executives to adopt a more strategic evaluation of failure and success? Ironically, such an attitude in itself may help reduce project failure, if the focus is on outcomes rather than limits.

About the author
Eddie Kilkelly is Chief Operating Officer for the ILX Group plc. Eddie has been involved in the best practice industry for almost twenty years. During this time he has worked as both a project and IT service manager and more recently as an implementation consultant providing support to organisations who have adopted the use of best practice methods including PRINCE2, MSP and ITIL.