Why IT projects fail

By | December 18, 2015

The Vancouver Sun newspaper has been running a series of articles this week examining failed BC government IT projects. The Sun claims the eight largest are $350 million over budget and counting.

I have a few thoughts on this.

It’s easy to single out government as the worst culprit but to be fair the Sun should compare these eight with the eight largest private-sector IT projects. Government failures get splashed across front pages, while the private sector gets to keep most its mangled or dead IT bodies out of sight.

The series cites the usual culprits for IT failures: poor planning, excessive complexity, overpromising by vendors, little or no user input, bad choices in the customized software versus off-the-shelf decision, and lack of prototype testing.

One expert, a university professor, is quoted as saying the government should have a “neutral, third-party expert” in the room for every negotiation with a software vendor.

I doubt that would work. Vendors will always over promise and customers will always have to be skeptical, suspicious and even downright paranoid.

The only major IT project I’ve managed was a low six-figure website for a client. The timeline was ambitious – six months from conception to launch. We went 10% over budget, and had to jettison a key feature along the way, but we kept pretty much to schedule and ended up with a good site.

I found the biggest challenge was communication – educating the vendor about the client’s complex services structure so the site accurately reflected and explained how the client’s business worked. A more detailed requirements document would have spared me much time and effort. Mea culpa on that one.

Yesterday’s Sun article looked at a failed IT healthcare project designed to provide GPs with information about medical specialists in the province. The project was killed after five years and $15 million. Then a group of docs in the Fraser Valley used open-source software to build an equivalent system for $350,000. It’s proven so popular that 25 other communities are using it.

The lesson here might be to start small and cheap and then get big. But that’s not always possible. When it comes to IT projects, ambition and complexity seem to grow exponentially with the size of the organization. An international study quoted by the Sun claims half of all large IT projects fail. That’s a stunning statistic that everyone in IT should ponder.

In IT, starting small can be better and cheaper than dreaming big – Vancouver Sun

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