Large IT projects are vastly more difficult to deliver successfully than smaller ones, because a project’s complexity, interdependencies, and communication challenges grow exponentially as the project grows in size. What works well for the execution of small projects rarely suffices for the execution of large ones.
Although every major IT project and its circumstances are unique, projects that are flagging often have common characteristics.
Inexperienced Project Teams. Experience matters in large projects. Something we commonly see among project teams that lack large-project experience is the inability to anticipate all the various activities that will be required as the project’s complexity grows. Such teams will underestimate the amount of testing activity necessary, for instance, or commit to aggressive milestones without underpinning this commitment with a bottom-up plan. Projects involving such teams frequently start to miss critical milestones and can even lose the confidence of senior stakeholders.
Lack of Engagement from Key Stakeholders. Projects that lack sufficient buy-in from the business—a situation often triggered by an absence of clarity about the project’s economics, scope, business strategy, or execution—can find themselves struggling for the necessary resources.
Requirements That Are Unclear or Too Complex Relative to the Business’s Needs. Many companies either fail to define (and document) projects’ business requirements at a sufficient level of detail—or define requirements that are too complex. They often make matters worse by pursuing development before all requirements are fully defined, which can result in “requirement churn” and lead to expensive redefinitions late in the game.
Insufficient Attention to Major Risks. Frank talk about project risks often gets “squeezed out” of the discussion in formal governance activities at status meetings or meetings of the project steering group. Those intimately involved in the project get so close to the details that they cannot see the forest for the trees. One of the most commonly shortchanged risks, and a particularly critical one, is the risk associated with data. Poor-quality data, or data designs that have not been sufficiently validated early in the project, can undermine the project, as can a failure to think through the risks of data migration. Another risk that is often insufficiently discussed and planned for is the set of challenges accompanying projects that span multiple markets or countries: there may be material differences in products, processes, languages, and regulatory environments that cannot be left to chance. Yet another risk that is often poorly prepared for and managed is the risk that project teams incur when they commit to a specific delivery date (for example, the date when a contract with a key supplier will expire) without giving themselves the flexibility to change the date if the project is delayed. Although a sense of urgency can help a team focus, an overly aggressive schedule can lead to suboptimal decisions and compromises that cause lasting damage.
Taking the Solution Live Without Sufficient Testing. Companies typically plan sufficient time for testing. What often happens, however, is that the time available for testing gets compressed because delays in earlier activities, such as development, lead to the shortchanging of critical testing activities, including performance testing. The resulting toll can be steep, because once a solution goes live, fixing problems is vastly more expensive and difficult. And the business consequences of poor-quality software can be severe.
Failure to Manage the Project Plan Effectively. Projects whose leadership fails to detect early warning signs of major problems or a growing risk of missing milestones tend to lurch from crisis to crisis—and repeatedly surprise stakeholders as milestones are missed.
Insufficient Attention to Change Management. Although much has been written about change management in the last 20 years, we often still see project leaders underestimating what is involved in managing the human side of change. Leaders will devote insufficient resources to this aspect of their projects or generally be unaware of the extent of behavioral changes necessary for a successful outcome.
Any one of these conditions can be enough to undermine a project. More commonly, we find that projects that are going or have gone off the rails are characterized by several.