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How to Avoid Software Project Failures - Part 1

Scott Rhodes
February 8, 2005

Top ten lists are very funny. Failed projects are less funny. Even years after leaving a project that has failed people often remain bitter. What is surprising is a staggering 31.1% of projects will be canceled before they ever get completed.(1) Many of these failures could have been avoided but knowing what to look for takes a fair amount of experience.

We list below ten reasons why projects can fail. These are not listed in "Letterman's order" - the first two items and the last are really the most important.

1. No clear mission

This might seem obvious but it is the biggest cause of failure in projects. There is tremendous pressure in every company to appear busy. Working and producing things, hiring people, ordering equipment and the like are very good ways to appear important. Unfortunately, without a mission a company performs somewhat like an orchestra playing without music - the musicians all sound good individually but the result is a mess.

Having a clear mission means knowing what problem you are trying to solve. Large projects handle this with requirements documents and big meetings. A very simple thing to do is make sketches on a piece of paper of what the system will look like and have a brief discussion of what is supposed to happen.

One company asked us to evaluate their software project. When the review started, there was almost nothing to see, even after one year of work. When we met with the board they asked about the status and we told them it would fail and further that the people working on it knew it. They groaned and asked us if we could fix it. We told them no because nobody had ever set out what the product was supposed to do. We eventually helped them, but only after they sat down and worked out on paper what they wanted.

If you cannot make a paper sketch of the system, then your project will fail.


(Visit us next week for the second step in avoiding software failures).

(1) According to the Standish Group, 31.1% of projects will be canceled before they ever get completed. Further results indicate 52.7% of projects will cost 189% of their original estimates. On the success side, the average is only 16.2% for software projects that are completed on time and on budget. In the larger companies, the news is even worse: only 9% of their projects come in on time and on budget.


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