Software Project Failure: Why It Happens, How to Avoid It

October 03, 2019 / Bryan Reynolds

Reading Time: 9 minutes

On average, three out of ten IT projects fail among companies that aren’t in the top 25% of technology producers (1). Of those projects that succeed, more than half of them eventually cost almost 200% of their original estimates (2). The IT sector is booming and IT projects are plentiful, yet as many as a third of these projects are put to rest before they are ever completed.

Failure of a software project is expensive, damaging to company morale, and can cause some companies to fail outright. The challenges that IT companies face are numerous, and the reasons that software projects fail are varied. Understanding the causes behind these problems can help your company succeed, and may elevate your company into the upper levels of the tech world.

Why Do Software Projects Fail?

In any given software project, there are many things that can go wrong. Everything must be in sync for a software project to be successful, from the upper levels of management all the way down through the many ranks of staff. Below, we’ve covered the most common reasons that software projects fail.

Poor Planning

What is was planned vs what was actually done

The initial plans of any software project are like the bones of a body, or the studs and foundation of a home. Without this foundation for support, the project cannot be successful. During the planning process, questions must be answered.

  • What is the purpose of this project? What are the goals?
  • Who are the customers?
  • What do the customers need?
  • By when do they need it?
  • What must be accomplished in order to meet those goals?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?

Poor planning can destroy a project by leaving those involved unprepared for challenges, and by leading the project team astray in their development and design.

Because of poor planning, the project may run out of money too early in the process. The team may spend time solving problems that don’t exist. Or, the project could experience delays in production leading to the project’s demise.

Poor Communication

All projects, software projects and otherwise, rely on good communication between all parties involved. Poor communication causes misunderstandings, sometimes catastrophic ones. While it’s important to facilitate good communication between project team members and management, these are not the only parties involved. Failure to identify all relevant parties can cause serious problems.

Ultimately, it is the customers who must be kept happy. Failure to listen to clients can lead IT companies to create a product that customers will not buy.

Lack of Clear Goals and Focus

Goals are the finish line at the end of the race. When goals are achieved, members of the team know they’ve done things right. Without clear goals, projects can easily veer off course.

It’s not enough to have the goals, they must be properly communicated. People must know what they’re working toward and where they’re going. When they do not, whether they achieve their goals may become random and unpredictable. It becomes as likely they will fail as it is they will succeed.

Unrealistically Tight Deadlines

Unrealistically tight deadlines are unlikely to be achieved. When deadlines are set too near in the future, the project team may fail to meet those deadlines. This can cause a cascade of problems for stakeholders, who expect the project to be delivered at the promised date. Unrealistically tight deadlines also lead to errors, shortcuts, and a lower-quality product.

Unnecessarily Large Team

Sometimes, to compensate for unrealistically tight deadlines, IT companies overstock their team, hiring more people than they really need. The logic is simple: many hands make light work.

Managers often assume that larger teams can work faster. This is not always the case. In fact, a large staff may get in one another’s way. Too many people working on a project can cause confusion, errors and communication problems.

Telephone Game Effects on Project Management

What Can Your Company Do to Find Success?

Knowing what typically goes wrong in software projects makes it easier to avoid the pitfalls that so many companies experience. Your company can find success in your upcoming software project, but first, you must plan, create goals, establish realistic deadlines, and build up the right team. Taking a measured approach and time to build your project slowly and thoughtfully will increase your chances of success.

Plan Early, Plan Thoroughly

Thoughtful planning is the backbone of all successful projects. Planning is broken down into several stages. Good planning involves budgeting, establishing goals and milestones, and setting deadlines. If all of these things are not accomplished in the planning stages, it’s very difficult for any software project to move forward.

Create Clearly Defined Goals

Any project, whether software related or not, must have clearly defined goals that have been communicated to all parties involved. Getting buy-in from the top managers and staff people involved in the project will help ensure that key employees understand the project goals.

Goals should be simple, written in easy language and relatively short sentences.

  • Limit the goals to keep the project focused and clear.
  • Talk about goals in all planning meetings.
  • State the goals in documents associated with the project, to reiterate their importance.
  • Communicate goals with the board and stakeholders.
  • Discuss goals with clients to solicit feedback.

In other words, make the goals clear and concise. They should be no mystery. When writing goals, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are these goals realistic?
  • Do I understand these project goals?
  • Does this fulfill a need?

During the goal-writing stage, most companies must conduct research that will help them define their goals. Market research helps companies determine what customers want, so their goals are in alignment with what clients need.

Know the Milestones

Once the goals have been established, a roadmap must be created. Ask the question, how are we going to get there? A software project is essentially a journey, and most journeys have landmarks. Establishing those landmarks early in the planning process will give your team the ability to measure progress. Your team will know they’re succeeding in their software project if they can point to the milestones they’ve passed along the way.

Establish Generous Deadlines

You’ve heard the phrase, “under promise and over deliver.” Stakeholders and customers form their expectations around the promises that your team makes during the planning stages. With this in mind, establish generous deadlines that give you the time you need to bring your project to its completion.

Do not allow your stakeholders to pressure you into delivering the project earlier than necessary. To ensure that your stakeholders are prepared for a wait, if a long wait is called for, deliver carefully crafted presentations. Cover information such as:

  • How many people are at work on this project?
  • What challenges must you overcome in order to deliver a satisfactory product?
  • How much research must be conducted before this project can even begin?
  • What are the potential negative consequences if you do not properly plan and execute your plan?

Presenting all the facts to your stakeholders or customers can help them understand the reasons for your long timelines. Once your long timelines are established, do your best to beat those timelines, delivering in less time than was originally planned. If you can’t beat your deadline, your good communication will hopefully keep your company in good standing with stakeholders and customers.

Know Your Budget

As goals and milestones are established, the project budget should start to become clear. A project’s budget should be directly related to the number of people on staff and the weeks or months that the project will take. The budget of a project can make or break the project itself. A project that goes far over budget must be that much more successful in order for the project to make a profit.

The majority of successful IT projects go over budget. Significantly over budget. Build in a margin of error into your project budget to ensure that even if you do go over your projections, you’ll still have the ability to pay your team and keep the project running until the first profits start to come back.

Don’t Take On More Than You Can Handle

Small projects have a higher rate of success when compared to larger projects. The smaller the project, the more likely it is that your team will succeed. In fact, the CHAOS database shows that from FY2011 to 2015, over half of successful software projects were considered small (italics).

This is not to say that your company should deliberately reduce the size of its IT project to ensure its success. Rather, the project size should be only as large as it needs to be in order to meet the end goals. The team should only be as large as necessary to get the work done. The budget should be properly fitted for the size of the team. Lines of code should be clean and there should only be as much code as needed to accomplish project goals.

Chaos Resolution By Project Size

Source: Chaos Resolution by Project Size

Hire the Right Professionals

Nothing is more important than hiring the right team. Start by hiring the right managers, with project management experience. IT managers must understand more than just code, they must also understand how to navigate IT projects, how to motivate staff, what to do when projects go awry, and how to communicate with all involved parties.

Once the IT manager is in place, make a plan before hiring other professionals. Only hire for positions that fill a definite need. Do not fill redundant positions in hopes of completing the project faster. Write a clear job description for each position and know the skills that each person needs to finish the project.

Look for more than IT skills when hiring professionals to complete a long-term project. People skills are important for ensuring that the project will be a success. Members of a team must have the ability to work together, to sync with one another, and share ideas and information.

Train Your Team Well

Before the project begins, train the new team to ensure they have the skills necessary to bring the project to its conclusion. IT skills are a must, and the team you hire should have those skills already. However, there are other skills that may also be important.

Team work, communication, collaboration, time management and planning are all important skills for completing complex projects. Although the members of your new team may have experience that demonstrates these skills, in-house trainings can drive the message home while also showing that you prioritize these abilities. Start a series of trainings to ensure that the person you’ve hired will have the knowledge they need to do the job right.

Schedule Regular Project Check-Ins

Keep everyone on the same page throughout the project. To do this, schedule regular project check-ins and updates with the various stakeholders, including board members and investors. Is your project on time? Are you ahead of schedule? What challenges are you encountering? What challenges can you anticipate encountering in the future? These regular project check-ins will give stakeholders the information they need to plan for the project’s completion.

Check in with potential customers throughout the project as well. Your customers will help you stay apprised of the current market, and the needs of the consumers. Without these check-ins, you risk producing a product that the customer will not buy.

Finally, check in with your team. Short but quick check-ins ensure that everyone is doing their part to keep the project moving. If one part of your team falls behind, these check-ins could help stabilize the project and keep the process moving. These check-ins also represent a chance to solve problems and brain storm.

Work With an IT Consulting Firm and Software Development Company

Your company can expedite its software project by hiring the right IT consulting firm and software development company. A good consulting company acts as a partner throughout the software development process. An experienced consulting firm can help your business establish a sensible budget, avoid deadlines that are unrealistically tight, and hire the right managers and staff for your project.

A consulting firm can also conduct research, help you narrow your goals, and communicate with the involved parties. During the planning stages, your consulting firm can help you develop a promising road map to a successful IT project completion. As the project is being completed, your IT consulting firm will keep you on track and avoid pitfalls.

It’s important to have help from an outsider throughout this process, and that’s what your IT consulting firm will do. When looking for a firm, get and check references to ensure that the company has a track record of success. Ask each potential firm questions about their previous work on successful software projects, and find out what extra services they provide to ensure that your software project will be successful.

Not like this, like this

Contact Baytech Consulting

At Baytech Consulting, we specialize in enterprise business applications, including web and desktop-based solutions. We help companies build applications that utilize the latest web technologies. Our commitment to quality and a high level of customization ensures seamless software development.

For more information about how we can provide IT software project management to help your company throughout your development project, contact us today. We’ll provide the information you need to help you decide if our company and services are right for you.

  1. Computer World, Surveys Show Common IT Woes Persist, 2003
  2. Standish Group, Chaos, 2014