Project Expert: Sometimes IT Project Failure Is an Option

In a previous column, I outlined the characteristics for project success as cited by several professionals ["The Ingredients of Project Success," March issue]. Although these professionals work outside the IT realm, their insights are directly relevant for CIOs. Nonetheless, it's important to recognize that IT departments have their own reasons for project failure. Sometimes the primary reason for failure is that project managers are forced to shoot themselves in the foot. Here are three main causes of their pain.

Forced agreements. For most project managers, it's the bane of their existence when business managers dictate highly unrealistic cost and time estimates. So why do project managers agree to such dictates? The threat of one's job being outsourced creates an environment in which it's safer to comply first and fail later.

Time and cost estimates are accurate only when they are based on a project team's skill level, number of project assignments and work environment. But analysis of hundreds of project estimates shows that most project managers largely ignore these factors. Time and cost estimates that account for these factors are invariably higher than managers would like. The end result: estimates that please managers' superiors rather than reflect reality. I often ask business managers why they entrust project managers with a $1-million project but won't accept realistic estimates from these same managers.

I have yet to hear a logical answer.

Under-resourced teams. Organizations routinely launch a large number of IT projects with fewer resources than originally planned. The two leading reasons: too many projects at a time and too many that run behind schedule. Even when it's clear that the right resources won't be available for new projects, organizations launch them anyway, hoping that project teams will catch up by working overtime.

If a project is under-resourced by 10% to 20%, a lower-quality end product is guaranteed. There will be less testing, documentation and prototyping than planned. A resource gap exceeding 20% will jeopardize a project's schedule, scope and quality; the client won't receive the project that IT promised to deliver.

Underskilled teams. I recently read a magazine advice column in which a reader asked whether he could use regular gasoline in a car designed for premium gas. He was told that using regular gas would likely result in engine overheating and stress. The same can be said for project teams with lower skill levels than a project requires. Team members burn out, and the project becomes stressed as well.

A 2005 survey of 195 IT organizations conducted by the Center for Project Management found that only 11% of respondents had well-structured education and training programs for project teams. The remaining 89% resort to on-the-job training. When reviewing the plans for mission-critical projects, I routinely ask project managers whether they have included the tasks, resources, budget and time needed for team member training within their project plans. I typically get a quizzical look in response. When was the last time you made sure that project team members have the requisite knowledge to match the complexity of their projects?

Project managers seldom have the authority to address these issues. CIOs must ensure that these managers don't have to accept untenable cost and time estimates while being forced to settle for teams that are under-resourced and underskilled. Without addressing these problems, IT departments will continue to shoot themselves in the foot.

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. To comment on this story, email ProjectExpert@ciodecisions.com.

This was first published in May 2006

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