Set up a project for success

According to the Standish Group’s ( CHAOS report 2015 only 29% of IT & Software projects succeed, or in other words more than 2 in 3 projects are challenged or fail entirely. What is astonishing is the significant variation of success and failure rates depending on factors such as size, complexity of the project, the project approach or emotional intelligence of the people involved.

However, for a meaningful assessment we need to clarify first what we (in line with the Standish Group) consider what actually constitutes a successful project.

  • Success = project is on time and on budget with a satisfactory result
  • Challenged = project is completed but not on time or not on budget or the result is not satisfactory
  • Failed = project is cancelled or completed but never used

The data and findings show some interesting and significant trends and allow anyone a conscious choice to enhance the chances of success when setting up a new project or running a project. I am selecting a critical subset of 7 areas for success to watch out for to increase the probability your (software/IT)project will be successful:

  • Keep your project small and simple or break it up into smaller chunks:
    About 57% of small and simple projects succeed, but only 5% of grand, complex projects do. So the advice is straightforward, keep your projects as simple and small as possible:

    • Break larger projects into smaller incremental builds, avoid “big bang” projects.
    • Break up larger project teams into smaller self-organising groups (6-10).
    • Actively manage the scope and complexity down; specifically assess requirements on cost, value and risk and especially question any on low value, high cost or high risk to make sure they are absolutely required in this first/next step.
  • Where possible use an iterative, agile project approach:
    • There is a stunning, significant higher success rate for projects of any size if they are run via iterative, agile process rather than predictive waterfall, this can enhance chances by as much as a factor of 3.
    • This is overlapping with the other points made, because an agile approach implies some of the other success factors.
    • One other reason why agile is also powerful is that it allows to fail much earlier (significantly reduced losses) and also enables faster restart.
    • However, there are situations where an organisation is not ready or not capable of running a project in an agile fashion and forcing an “agile” stamp on the project will not achieve the desired results. There is still an opportunity to look at how much a predictive approach can be adapted to encourage many of the agile benefits and values to be successful within the given environment.
  • Work collaboratively and apply emotional intelligence
    • Projects where parties or even individuals operate in silos, where parties aim to win or take glory at others costs (most common observed between suppliers and buyers) or where focus is on finding a scapegoat when things get difficult tend to experience noticeably more challenges than projects where parties work collaboratively towards a joint problem solving and project success, where the focus is not on blame but on solution and progress.
    • This requires a good degree of emotional intelligence not only for the project manager but also other stakeholders and across the sponsor and project teams.
    • This implies an ability to effectively deal with conflict and with identifying and handling challenging behaviour (e.g. 5 deadly sins of over ambition, arrogance, ignorance, abstinence and fraudulence).
  • Secure Executive Management support
    • A significant project without strong and continuous executive management support is unlikely to succeed and if such support is not forthcoming or is being withdrawn consider why that is and if this project really ought to move forward or be abandoned instead.
    • Stakeholders and especially users need to give the project an appropriate priority to be involved and know that executives are behind them. Executives need to communicate and reiterate their support.
  • Ensure continuous User Engagement
    • User engagement is critical at every step of the project to ensure requirements are tested, priorities are tested, changes are appropriate, results will meet expectations and actual value is created.
    • It is not hard to see why projects that will have users involved only at a point of user acceptance testing will regularly find that it has produced superfluous, unexpected, misaligned, imprecise or incorrect functionality. On project completion a much higher hurdle to take on user adoption or new systems and processes compared to projects that have had continuous user engagement and input.
  • Clarify and verify Requirements:
    • One factor being mentioned over and over again on troubled projects is that requirements were unclear, kept changing or increasing.
    • So before developing the solution to any requirement make sure it is a relevant, current and well-understood and valuable requirement. As stated above there is a lot of merit in assessing requirements on cost, value and risk in order to prioritise, clarify, reduce. Detail of requirements may not be clear at the outset but might be clarified when moving towards the top of the backlog or as part of scrum sprint planning.
    • The other area touched upon is the necessity for managing change and avoiding scope creep; change itself will occur, the world and business are not static, and the plan, scope, solutions may need to be adjusted accordingly; this is relevant for agile as well waterfall projects, though agile projects tend to lend themselves to integrate changes with a much reduced level of disruption and philosophically embrace changes. It is important though to understand where expected commercials, timelines etc are changing or what the options are to trade within scope to avoid commercial or timeline impact.
  • Make sure your Team is appropriately skilled:
    • People make projects succeed. As well as the soft skill element of emotional intelligence you need people who “know their stuff”, don’t need to second guess. Therefore:
      • Have a qualified project manager who understands the approach used, encourages the appropriate use of tools and possesses a good degree of emotional intelligence.
      • Have a qualified and trained project team that is equipped to carry out the project work and the right people can do the right work.
        To achieve this, you need to ensure they are or get properly and thoroughly trained in time and that as appropriate coaching and mentoring are available.
      • Strongly consider bringing in outside expertise for selected elements where insufficient expertise exists inhouse or capacity is too limited.
    • A strong project environment will additionally offer development opportunities for project members and stakeholders as part of continuous improvement and as one element of motivating the team.

So in summary, you have a choice to run you project in a way that significantly increases the likelihood of success. Statistics or a huge number of real-life software and it projects is available via The Standish Group over many years as well as a lot of associated literature, reports and services. To highlight again what differences your choices could make, give you project a “winning hand” and it has a 81% chance to succeed – give it a “losing hand” and that chance is reduced to a frightening 1%!

So why not take the care and time to have the right people involved and ensure they are trained, focus on collaboration also and especially with users, keep your project as agile and small as possible (avoid waste or any low value deliverable) or break it up into separate self-contained chunks.