Most IT Development Projects Succeed!

January 13, 2012 | Author: PM Hut | Filed under: Project Management Musings

Most IT Development Projects Succeed!
By The Grumpy Project Manager

Why do IT projects fail more often than building projects? Or do they? No.

If we say out loud that we’ll start building ‘a house’, different people see a different picture of a house in their mind, something from a small one to a huge palace. I would guess that quite often they see the house they live in or want to live in. If a house is built with just ‘a house’ as the specification, the end result will be a disappointment to many; maybe up to 70 per cent of people.

Drawings are prepared beforehand for a building project so that we know how it will look like, how many square meters, what the room height, how thick the walls, the exact colors to be used, etc. If a building project is made according to the drawings it is a success, when evaluated by experts.


What if we instead ask some end users of buildings – for example family members who didn’t want to move to this new house in the first place – about the success of building projects. The answer is not that “this is ok because it is according to the drawings”, but rather “my room should be bigger”, “what, no fireplace”, “My old chair doesn’t fit this room well”, “From my previous room the sun looked brighter”, “This is not the color I asked for”, “I wanted a room from the second floor with a view, and this building has only one floor”. In a building project these comments don’t mean that the project is a failure or ‘challenged’.

In IT projects we seldom have so detailed specifications, at least such that everybody would understand those the same way, and so there may not be a clear picture of what the end result will be. Furthermore, we have a lot of different requests and expectations from both the managers and end users. Some reasonable, some unreasonable, many conflicting, all cannot be realized. If a person doesn’t see her or his request implemented in the end result, feedback is often negative. In an IT project this feedback may mean that the project is considered to be a failure or at least challenged, when in building projects similar comments are irrelevant.

Most IT projects Succeed

The cure in IT projects is to make more detailed and understandable specifications, and to communicate beforehand and during the project what will be included and what not, as well as what will be different from the current situation and why. Not so that people can propose changes and additions all the time, but to adjust the expectations with the planned outcome. This is about having proper portfolio and project management practices.

The other cure is to evaluate the outcome of a project purely against the specifications which include the agreed functionalities, and not against the pile of requests which was excluded from the project. The purpose of an IT project and its end result is to fulfill a certain business need, and not every personal ambition. When we get feedback, we should evaluate whether it is really relevant; what is the value of it. This is about having proper change management practices.

We are often told that up to 70 percent of IT projects fail and from the remaining 30per cent many are challenged. Repeating this over and over again is fatal. People expect that IT projects fail. People almost require that IT projects fail, and so all negative feedback is given high value regardless of the relevance. It is ‘safe’ to repeat this ’70 per cent fact’ because then it is OK to fail: a project and a project manager who fails is a normal performer, when a successful project is a ‘freak’. And when we study these ‘freaks’ very carefully it is possible to find some negative feedback and to ‘challenge’ projects’ success.

It is true that IT system development activities, ‘bustles’ which are not run as real projects but as a bunch of random tasks without real objectives and specifications often do fail, and stain the reputation of real projects. Real IT Projects – the ones initiated, executed and closed properly – are often successful; have the same success rate any kind of project has.

Most IT development bustles fail. Most of IT development projects succeed. I rest my case.

The Grumpy Project Manager is a program manager in an international corporation and has over ten years of experience in managing R&D, IT and business development projects. You can read more from the Grumpy PM on his (or her?) blog. S/he can be contacted by email at

2 people have left comments

This is the first time I see things from this perspective. It seems that as IT Project Managers, we’re not failing as much as we thought we are, it’s just the expectations from us are just too high. We are expected by all of our stakeholders (including ourselves) to be perfect, which is never achievable.

H. Breevoort wrote on January 13, 2012 - 2:19 pm | Visit Link

Nice article. The CHAOS report of 2011 shows that more and more IT projects are successful. Based on my experience I agree with you that the root cause for failure is bad requirements which lead to underestimation of the effort and thus to failure.

Standish Group International (2011). CHAOS Manifesto 2011- Press release. The Standish Group International, Inc Available from:

George wrote on January 15, 2012 - 10:24 am | Visit Link

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