Why IT Projects Fail

It's estimated that over 50% -- some say 80% -- of all large IT projects fail. The reasons for that startling failure rate aren't mysterious. Too many companies make the same mistakes too many times. I've identified five of the most common causes for failure. I've also come up with some questions your organization should answer before it starts a project, to boost the chance of success.

1. The project's real value isn't understood. When calculating ROI, be sure to have a clear understanding of the total cost of ownership. Without a concrete TCO, the ROI figures are meaningless.

Understanding the various ROI metrics, acknowledging that these are fuzzy metrics and clearly defining what the organization expects from a successful implementation will produce a clear view of the project's value.

2. You don't know your users. Who are the main users of the technology you're implementing? Are they business users or technical users, power users or casual users?

Business users are usually from marketing, finance and other nontechnical groups in the organization. They want to see summaries, dashboards, charts, graphs and other reports that enable them to spot trends.

Technical users are usually from IT, security and other operations groups. These are the ones who want all the nitty-gritty details. They want to drill down and diagnose problems. They perform the root-cause analysis when things go wrong.

Power users want sophisticated interfaces and flexibility. They generally use the system three or four times a week or even every day, and they can be anywhere in the organization, including marketing and finance.

Casual users are on the system once a week or less. They may not even log on at all and prefer to receive reports via e-mail.

3. Requirements aren't clearly understood. The only way to identify real requirements is to talk to potential users and get the answers to these questions: Are your requirements based on regulations, operational problems, performance, capacity optimization or trend analysis?

Do you have platform requirements -- Windows? Linux? Java? .Net? How about requirements to integrate with corporate infrastructure?

What's your requirement on performance? Scalability? Extensibility? Manageability? Usability? Security?

Before evaluating any technology, answer those questions in detail. Don't choose a product or create unreasonable requirements because of brand loyalty or FOE (friends of executives).

4. You've limited your options. Too often, companies decide that only a commercial product will meet their requirements, before all the options have been evaluated.

Before you jump to a commercial solution, you should evaluate your resources and skills within your own organization and see if you can or should go open-source. There are many factors to consider when choosing among the commercial, open-source or homegrown options.

Do you have the resources (head count) to support whatever option you choose? Commercial products may save you some development time and head count, but you may get faster feature updates if you have dedicated developers for a homegrown system.

Do your engineers have the necessary skills to maintain an open-source product or develop a homegrown solution? This really goes back to your requirements.

Even if you have the resources and skills within your organization, can you spare the time from other projects? What's your budget? It will vary based on the executive sponsor, the project's scale, its urgency and other factors.

Knowing your requirements will allow you to find the right option to meet them.

5. You don't have a clear understanding of the products available. Many of the IT products out there are strong in some areas and weak in others. Many vendors will tell you that they are strong in all areas. If they tell you that, run away as fast as you can.

Tell the vendors about your requirements. Ask them to rate how well each of their products meets your requirements. Ask for an evaluation. Ask them how their software/hardware compares with that of their competitors. Ask them to share their product road map. Ask about the support structure.

Never buy a product without actually using it. There's no way to tell whether it meets your requirements by looking at PowerPoint slides.

Try to be open-minded. There are no 100% solutions. Prioritizing your requirements will help you determine which system best fits your company.

Spending some time upfront will help you avoid these common problems and allow you to meet your real requirements.

Jian Zhen, CISM, CISSP, has been in the information security industry for nine years. He can be reached at jlz@trustpath.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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