IT's biggest project failures -- and what we can learn from them

Think your project's off track and over budget? Learn a lesson or two from the tech sector's most infamous project flameouts.

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Copland's development could be the poster child for feature creep. As the new OS came to dominate resource allocation within Apple, project managers began protecting their fiefdoms by pushing for their products to be incorporated into System 8. Apple did manage to get one developers' release out in late 1996, but it was wildly unstable and did little to increase anyone's confidence in the company.

Before another developer release could come out, Apple made the decision to cancel Copland and look outside for its new operating system; the outcome, of course, was the purchase of NeXT, which supplied the technology that became OS X.

Copland did not die in vain. Some of the technology seen in demos eventually turned up in OS X. And even before that, some Copland features wound up in System 8 and 9, including a multithreaded Finder that provided something like true preemptive multitasking.

Lesson learned

Project creep is a killer. Keep your project's goals focused.

Sainsbury's warehouse automation

Sainsbury's, the British supermarket giant, was determined to install an automated fulfillment system in its Waltham Point distribution center in Essex. Waltham Point was the distribution center for much of London and southeast England, and the barcode-based fulfillment system would increase efficiency and streamline operations. If it worked, that is.

Installed in 2003, the system promptly ran into what were then described as "horrendous" barcode-reading errors. Regardless, in 2005 the company claimed the system was operating as intended. Two years later, the entire project was scrapped, and Sainsbury's wrote off £150 million in IT costs. (That's $265,335,000 calculated by today's exchange rate, enough to buy a lot of groceries.)

Lesson learned

A square peg in a round hole won't fit any better as time goes on. Put another way -- problems that go unaddressed at rollout will only get worse, not better, over time.

Canada's gun registration system

In June 1997, Electronic Data Systems and U.K.-based SHL Systemhouse started work on a Canadian national firearm registration system. The original plan was for a modest IT project that would cost taxpayers only $2 million -- $119 million for implementation, offset by $117 million in licensing fees.

But then politics got in the way. Pressure from the gun lobby and other interest groups resulted in more than 1,000 change orders in just the first two years. The changes involved having to interface with the computer systems of more than 50 agencies, and since that integration wasn't part of the original contract, the government had to pay for all the extra work. By 2001, the costs had ballooned to $688 million, including $300 million for support.

But that wasn't the worst part. By 2001, the annual maintenance costs alone were running $75 million a year. A 2002 audit estimated that the program would wind up costing more than $1 billion by 2004 while generating revenue of only $140 million, giving rise to its nickname: "the billion-dollar boondoggle."

The registry is still in operation and still a political football. Both the Canadian Police Association and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have spoken in favor of it, while opponents argue that the money would be better spent otherwise.

Lesson learned

Define your project scope and freeze specifications before the requests for changes get out of hand.

Three current projects in danger

At least Canada managed to get its project up and running. Our final three projects, courtesy of the U.S. government, are still in development -- they have failed in many ways already, but can still fail more. Will anyone learn anything from them? After reading these other stories, we know how we'd bet.

FBI Virtual Case File

In 2000, the FBI finally decided to get serious about automating its case management and forms processing, and in September of that year, Congress approved $379.8 million for the Information Technology Upgrade Project. What started as an attempt to upgrade the existing Automated Case Support system became, in 2001, a project to develop an entirely new system, the Virtual Case File (VCS), with a contract awarded to Science Applications International Corp.

That sounds reasonable until you read about the development time allotted (a mere 22 months), the rollout plans (a "flash cutover," in which the new system would come online and the old one would go offline over a single weekend), and the system requirements (an 800-page document specifying details down to the layout of each page).

By late 2002, the FBI needed another $123.2 million for the project. And change requests started to take a toll: According to SAIC, those totaled about 400 by the end of 2003. In April 2005, SAIC delivered 700,000 lines of code that the FBI considered so bug-ridden and useless that the agency decided to scrap the entire VCS project. A later audit blamed factors such as poorly defined design requirements, an overly ambitious schedule and the lack of an overall plan for purchases and deployment.

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