Why Projects Fail and What You Can Do About It!

Much has been written on implementing large-scale change projects. TQM, Six-Sigma and other approaches to managing organizational change have morphed into methodologies used in Higher-Ed projects. Drawing from corporate best practices, colleges and universities have successfully integrated process tools and approaches to manage the design phase of enterprise technology projects.

What they haven't practiced effectively is a structured approach to the decision-making process around what to implement in the first place.

Sound familiar?

Here's a typical scenario: A senior manager in Information Technology is asked to evaluate the cost and scope for a new ERP System. The reasons for this effort include: outdated systems that are no longer supported, decentralized tools that don't talk to each other, and non-existent centralized reporting.

A budget for the new technology is drafted (hardware and software) along with an estimate of the consulting help needed to build the system. The case is presented to senior management, who invariably asks for a reduction in overall costs. Vendors and consultants, eager to get in the door, adjust their fees. A project team is formed, a kick-off event is convened and the project begins.

Senior management buy-in is an important first step to get the ball rolling. What's missing in this early selling phase, however, is a rigorous examination of the following three things:— genuine business readiness, criticality or relevance and customer involvement.

Genuine Business Readiness

Enterprise initiatives are not about technology, although they can quickly become systems projects. The work performed on the project and end result desired is all about rethinking how organizations conduct business. Ignoring organizational readiness around process changes, business structures and use of new tools is at the heart of more missed deadlines and perceived project failures.

Take this statistic: The Standish Group International Research report in 2004 concluded that of the 9,000 enterprise projects evaluated, 71% either failed or were seriously challenged, while only 29% were considered successful (delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions)

Would anyone in their right mind not re-evaluate the scope of their projects knowing these statistics? Unfortunately, common sense and prudence disappear once the train departs the station.

We've Got To Talk

Business readiness means that inheritors of the change have an early voice in the change process. Think of it this way. Would you wake up one day and tell your kids you're moving, without at least giving them a sense that their opinion matters? (that is if they are older than 3) No, you would sit them down and describe your reasoning, allowing them to express concerns, maybe even have a voice in the decision.

Much of the time resistance to organizational change is misidentified with the emotion of anger or confusion about not being communicated with. Contrary to popular belief, people accept change. What they don't accept is change being imposed on them. Although conventional wisdom is to limit stakeholder feedback to those who have positive things to say or are the biggest potential troublemakers, you don't improve your chance of success by avoiding difficult conversations or constructive disagreement.

Two Kinds Of Stakeholders

Stakeholders (both advocates and detractors) are key to making the case for change and should be included in evaluating the scope of large-scale project. Advocates demonstrate what it means to have an open mind around change, often helping to test the viability of what's being put in place. Detractors are equally important, uncovering where the real challenges lie, sometimes voicing concerns that should be addressed before the implementation begins. Detractors also reveal who in the organization will dig their feet in no matter what the benefit, which is good information in itself.

Either way, advocates or detractors help the organization make the case for change, and should be fully communicated with in the early stages of a project.


Before management commits the resource investment, setting in motion a chain of expectations up and down the organization, a few straightforward questions need to be asked and answered: What can we count on ourselves to follow through on? What's critical versus nice to have?

Finally, why is it necessary now?

Criticality needs to be examined in a way that balances project best practices with organizational business readiness. Criticality is more than researching other institution implementation practices or following consultant recommendations for what has to be implemented. It's a bit of a Catch-22 situation though: Senior management waiting for a compelling reason to make the investment while technologists looking for resource commitment to research compelling reasons for change.

It's the sponsors of these projects that are in a unique position to demand a higher standard for what's being promised, what's nice to have, and what's out of the question. Criticality needs to be examined carefully, taken apart, and then communicated clearly to those investing in the change. If the goal is to achieve strategic benefits (savings), expectation setting needs to be established up front - Which leads us to our third contributing factor for project success.

The Customer!

Who is your customer? It's commonly understood that front-line staff and their managers inherit the work associated with process and system change. In the long run, these groups are the champions who will make or break its success. Too often, we forget that human beings are at the heart of these change efforts. Ignore their concerns, and they'll only do enough to make sure failure won't be pinned on them.

Keep in mind that just because your customers have serious concerns does not mean a project should be put on hold. At the same time, focusing only on your most outspoken or obvious constituents won't serve the project in the long run.

The Glass Is Not Half Empty

If anything, too much time is spent preparing for "resistance to change", and not enough time explaining what's coming, inquiring about what people think about the change and validating their concerns. With a direct approach to dealing with conflict, resistance will begin to dissipate on its own.

In the Standish Report of 2004, ten factors were determined to have the most impact on project success. The top three were:

  1. Executive Support
  2. User Involvement
  3. Experienced Project Manager

The study validates that with an emphasis on executive support and user involvement, the condition for project success can be laid. Executive support means more than "show me the money" - It demands that business readiness is uncovered, criticality is carefully examined, and customers know what's coming.

Only then will "getting off the ground" have a direct impact on the quality and success of the project over the long run.

For the complete Standish report, go to http://www.standishgroup.com/sample_research/PDFpages/q3-spotlight.pdf.

Facilitation Tip

There is no more powerful communication tool than the one that appears to require the least work: listening

Listening is a lifetime art, one that can never be perfected. More can be learned from genuine listening than any constructive feedback or insightful comment you may give.

Taken from Edgar Shein's book Process Consultation Revisited, "I cannot determine what is the current reality if I do not get in touch with what I do not know about the situation and do not have the wisdom to ask about it." Stop talking, listen and you'll discover what you don't know. Then listen some more.

Excellent Reading!

Here are two articles and one book that focus on how to improve success of your projects by more effective selling up and down your organization:

  1. Enterprise Technology: Selling the Vision -- Campus Technology Magazine
    Overview: The difference between an enterprise technology implementation that soars and one that dies a painful death is planning, people, and—most of all—vision.
  2. Marketing and Selling Technology-A White Paper -- ThinkOne
    Overview: A Revenue death spiral: sales are down so marketing is slashed, which leads to reduced sales so marketing is cut more, and so on.
  3. Managing Information Technology Projects: Applying Project Management Strategies to Software, Hardware, and Integration Initiatives -- James Taylor
    Overview: Studies consistently show that 80-90 percent of all software and 30-45 percent of all systems projects fail. Yet management tools and techniques, as well as software development techniques, are constantly improving. What are the causes of these seemingly uncontrollable failures?