This article first highlights the misuse of the Project Management Triangle as a metric of success. Recognising that the very term “success”, and “failure”, can be subjective the author instead proposes generalised, objective and unambiguous examples of failure as a starting reference point. With these examples of failure serving as a foundation, three general deficits in project management are proposed as potential root causes, for IT project failure.
Project Management Triangle Misuse
The Project Management Triangle (also called the triple constraint, iron triangle and project triangle) consists of three points; cost, time and scope (or features). These points are argued to have proportionate relationships with each other. For example, a project can be completed faster by increasing budget and/or cutting scope. Similarly, increasing scope may require increasing the budget and/or schedule. Lowering the budget available will impact on schedule and/or scope. These trade-offs between the cost, time and scope create constraints which are said to dictate the quality of the produce. However stakeholders often misconstrue staying within the constraints of the triangle, while delivering a project, as a measure of success instead of, as intended, a determinant of quality.
As a demonstration of the unsuitability of the triangle as a metric of success consider the following. Would a self-build home delivered over budget, behind schedule and outside the original specifications be considered a failure? No, not for those who took on such a daunting endeavour, and survived the process, having brought into existence the home of their dreams. This is an example of a project where Atkinson (1999) might suggest the criteria for success existed outside of cost, time and scope.
So to define three significant causes of project failure it is first necessary to settle on unarguable features of project failure. It is important to note at this point that a project must have navigable obstacles and manageable risks. For instance an IT project cannot be considered a failure if an unnavigable obstacle was introduced, an example being new laws that prohibit online gambling that scuttle an online gambling platform that was in development. Similarly an IT project cannot be considered a failure if unmanageable risks were encountered such as the parent company collapsing due to financial irregularities not connected to the project.
With those points in mind the following statements are proposed as clear examples of project failure:
- The project exhausted necessary resources with no or unfinished deliverables.
- Delivery was too late and the deliverables are no longer needed or soon to be obsolete.
- Deliverables are not fit for purpose or of relative value.
- The costs exceeded the relative value generated by the deliverables.
- The project killed the parent organisation.
With examples of failure defined above the following section proposes management level causes of IT project failures.
IT Project Failure: Management Level Causes
Poor Project Visibility
There is a recognised need to have an information system in place to report on progress, cost, schedule etc. (Larson and Gray, 2010) In the built environment progress can be apparent even to the eye of a lay person but visibility of progress and consumption of resources can be far more difficult for projects in other industries some of which have intangible deliverables. In the IT industry back end infrastructure projects for example may have no visible deliverables and with cloud based deployments no visible supporting hardware.
This is why project management styles like SCRUM and visualisation tools like Kanban boards and burn down charts have been adopted. Without these visualisation aids Project Managers could be blind to progress and resource consumption. Therefore a lack of visibility is proposed as a potential cause, or contributor, to any of the failure examples defined above.
Inadequate Domain Knowledge
Domain Knowledge Is vital in steering stakeholder specifications, knowing what the relevant mile stones are and establishing what is feasible given the budget, time and scope. The case is made by (Larson and Gray, 2010) that the key to managing scope creep, which can be beneficial, is change management. It is questioned however without adequate domain knowledge how can the project manager know what the knock-on effects of a change will be, the derived value of a change or even if a change is possible without putting the project at risk? It is also questioned if a lack of domain knowledge is often misunderstood as poor leadership?
Lack of Accountability
Accountability is seen by (Kerzner and Kerzner, 2017) as the combination of authority and responsibility that rests at an individual level and is necessary for work to move forward. It is argued that if team members are not assigned tasks with consequences for under performance or failure the project has no drive for completion. This was particularly evident in the PPARS project (“PPARS- a comedy of errors,” n.d.). Due to questionable contract arrangements there were strong financial incentives to not finish the project and without accountability driving the project forward that end result was a complete failure.
An IT Project Manager needs to utilise the project management triangle as intended i.e. a means to keep the desired level of quality of the deliverable in focus. It there are fluctuations in cost, time or scope the IT Project Manager needs to be cognizant of what the knock-on effects will be. In addition an IT Project Manager needs to know who the right person to assign specific tasks to is. That person needs to have the proper motivation to get the work done, with the IT Project Manager having visibility of the work being done and the knowledge and experience to be able to assess if the work is being done properly. This is achieved through individual accountability, project visibility and domain knowledge. Without these three elements it is proposed a project has little chance of success.
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