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Why IT projects fail

There's a difference between managing risk and preventing failure.

By Mitch Betts
August 25, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Ever wondered why IT project status reports are so upbeat, managers continue to fund losing efforts, and some projects are doomed from the start? Sue Young, CEO of ANDA Consulting in Colchester, Vt., thinks about that all the time. She talked with Computerworld's Mitch Betts about preventing failure in IT projects and why risk management isn't enough.

Why are IT status reports often so rosy, even for projects in trouble? Because status isn't reported in objective, observable terms. It's often put in subjective terms like "percent done," or "red," "yellow" or "green." As long as you allow reporting to be done in subjective terms, you're going to get results that could be colored. Instead, you should look at "Is it done or not done?" where done has a clear definition. If you want to use colors, have a clear definition of what those colors mean.
Another reason is that if your reward system values compliance -- not rocking the boat, looking like you're on schedule -- and it doesn't value the early detection of problems, it leads to rosy status reports.
The third reason is fear, whether it's fear of looking bad or losing your job. You're not likely to remove fear in the workplace, but if you change the other two factors -- status reports that are objective and observable, plus a rewards system that values the early detection of problems -- then you'll have status reports that are reliable.

Are some IT projects just plain doomed from the start? Yes, I still see that. Either the data required for the project doesn't exist anywhere in the company, or the project is out of alignment with the business strategy, or the objective is simply unattainable.

Why do managers continue to fund losing efforts? One, they don't have any empirical evidence that the project can't be salvaged. Two, they want to salvage what's already been invested. The third reason is fear - fear of looking bad, fear of losing their job, fear of making a mistake.

At what point do you decide to kill the project despite the sunk costs? When you know that it can't possibly succeed. That requires knowing your definition of success. If you know that even if you pour more money into it, it's not going to be worth the benefits that you get out of it, then it's already failed, whether you keep going at it or not.

Sue Young, CEO of ANDA Consulting
Sue Young, CEO of ANDA Consulting
What's the best way to kill a project? I don't know that there's a best way. One way that

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