Diagnosing a Dead-End IT Project- When to Fail Fast and Move On1

Diagnosing a Dead-End IT Project: When to Fail Fast and Move On

An IT department’s most critical point of failure lies in its inability to cancel a dead-end project. Canceling a project can be a great move, but it is uncommon. (When was the last time you canceled an IT project?) All too often, IT departments waste significant time and money on a fruitless effort.

Let’s explore the major reasons why an IT project reaches an impasse. Knowing the reasons will help find an effective, yet low-risk path to fail fast and move forward.

The 5 Reasons IT Projects Fail

Generally speaking, a project fails for one (or more) of the following reasons:

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Canceling a Project Isn’t the Same as Blaming Someone

We have all seen many of the above conditions, but we rarely share our suspicions that a project is doomed to fail. The reason is that too many companies today take a defensive approach to project failure, searching simply for someone to blame.

Rarely are these failures the result of one individual’s wrongdoing or lack of judgement. Project failure is more typically caused by a lack of alignment among individuals or groups who are all pushing very hard in different directions.

A more effective approach to IT project failure is to proactively and objectively assess its chances of success—without pointing fingers. Because this may take a culture shift, consider the following suggestions for proactively assessing your project.

Clear Signs an IT Project Needs to Fail Fast

If you are a project sponsor, manager, stakeholder, or contributor, you can usually tell when a project is going nowhere fast. To stop the bleeding, it’s best to communicate to other stakeholders with clear evidence that the odds are stacked against success.

The following symptoms clearly predict that an IT project will fail:

  • It’s been a while since an executive attended the project’s weekly status or steering committee meetings or, worse yet, there are no regular status meetings.
  • The individuals who will be using new technology have not seen it, or are not thrilled with it.
  • Project participants are sidetracked by other priorities resulting in delays.
  • No one is tracking open issues and risks.
  • Issues that have been presented to senior or top management have not been resolved in a timely manner.
  • The timeline has had setbacks, but the approach has not been adjusted. Instead project stakeholders continue to repeat the same actions, expecting to get different results.
  • Change order costs are of the same order of magnitude as the original budget.
  • The team displays poor team moral or lack of task ownership.

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If two or more of the above symptoms are present, the project is approaching a dead-end. At this point the team should move into one of two modes: project cancellation or project rescue. 

In most organizations, the project lingers on until it delivers something for the sake of a checkmark, gets overridden by the next generation project, or an unfit solution is forced upon the business—leading to a real disaster.

Embrace the Failure to Move Forward

Mistakes always present learning opportunities. If the goals of the original IT project are still valid, it may be worth moving forward—but something needs to change.

In many cases though the first step toward success is to stop an effort that leads nowhere and free up the resources to proceed with new priorities and new project frameworks.

It’s time to cancel that dead-end project! Yes you can (and probably should more often).

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7 Elements of an IT Project Health Report

[…] All critical IT projects should include independent, impartial, recurring health checks. The benefits to performing this step at various stages of a project’s lifecycle are significant. Try it—it works! And don’t wait until your project is clearly failing. […]


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