Why Tech Projects Fail, and How to Prevent It

The most effective IT leaders I know always seem to have the same three priorities for their work – create measureable business value, make and keep commitments to their clients, and deliver high quality solutions built for sustainable success.  These leaders are true “partners” – seeking to understand the client’s purpose and goals, proactively proposing ideas, and resolving conflicts that might prevent project success.  Despite these leaders’ values and actions, despite their efforts to lead successful projects, the dirty secret of technology implementation is that too many projects blow budgets, miss deadlines, or deliver products that don’t work as promised – or at least not until the next release.


I’ve seen many successful projects during my 25 years’ of IT coaching.  But these projects all had leaders who would address common challenges that derail other projects.  Not one of these challenges has anything to do with technology, and none is unusually complex.  But, if left unaddressed, each one has the power to derail almost any project.  My goal is to help you prevent that from happening to your projects.


What are these common challenges?

  1. Unresolved conflicts among stakeholders.  Strategic projects typically have multiple stakeholders.  Whenever powerful stakeholders have strong interests, they will have a viewpoint and they will expect you to address their interests – even if they’re in conflict with others’ interests.
  2. Unclear, incomplete, or conflicting performance expectations.  This reason follows from the first reason; it’s impossible to create shared expectations if there are unresolved conflicts.  However, there can be other challenges with expectations including shifting business goals and project scope.
  3. Critical dependencies not defined or managed. –  The ability to identify dependencies in a complex, dynamic environment can’t be taught in a project management course.  Since it’s virtually impossible to identify every dependency, the challenge is both to manage the dependencies you can see and also respond quickly to dependencies that emerge unexpectedly.
  4. Mismatch between project demands and team members’ capability.  Sometimes, the mismatch is the result of conflicting or shifting expectations.  Sometimes, it’s a vendor promising some capability it doesn’t have, or is still working to develop.  Often, it’s simply the result of poor team member selection and/or development.
  5. Off-track performance is not effectively engaged or managed.  The initial performance gap is typically small, but people don’t engage, so the gap grows.  Eventually, the problem can no longer be hidden, so senior managers are pulled in.  However, these senior managers often waste additional time by trying to fix the problem before they engage the client in the process.


Why are these challenges so difficult to address?

These challenges persist because most people are afraid to have “difficult” conversations about purpose and goals, interests and conflicts, and performance problems.  These conversations require uncommon skills such as…

  • influencing others without authority/control,
  • surfacing and resolving conflicts with a direct yet nonjudgmental style,
  • negotiating complex and dynamic expectations, with a understanding of dependencies and with a style that builds commitment,
  • confronting and remedying off-track performance with all stakeholders, and
  • helping people see the “natural consequences” of their decisions.

These conversations are made more difficult because they often involve people who want to be treated as “authority figures” – and who expect agreement if not deference.  As a result, people either avoid the conversation completely or take some (apparently safer) alternative action that they hope will replace the more difficult conversation.  These alternatives seem attractive, because it feels like you’re doing something, but they typically fail to deliver the necessary results.


So, what’s a manager to do?

Following are four steps you can take to prevent project derailment.

  • Set and manage expectations about conflict – Conflict is both inevitable and useful, the result of people acting on their own interests.  The trouble starts when people AVOID the conflict, rather than ENGAGE it.  Your first step is to set the expectation with all stakeholders – clients, IT staff, and vendors – that all relevant conflicts will be surfaced and managed.  And managed using a collaborative style – describe the conflict without judgments or attacks, don’t be rigid around viewpoints, and propose and test solutions in the context of project goals.
  • Set and manage expectations about requirements – It’s impossible to create perfect, unchanging requirements.  Therefore, your goal is to develop a robust process to manage expectations jointly.  Steering committees and change control are a first step, but you must communicate consequences of poor expectations management all the way to the LT level, and then help senior leaders to develop their own agreements for managing priorities.
  • Build and reward widespread leadership skills – The modern organization is fast, flat, and global.  Client and vendor management are more decentralized, less hierarchical.  Critical skills to manage conflicts, influence others’ choices, and manage performance must NOT be limited to people or project managers.  Instead you must train and reinforce these skills broadly across project teams.
  • Build more “strategic” business partners – While everyone can help lead, not everyone has the capability to develop “strategic” perspective and skills.  This perspective is essential to see beyond the transactional and address questions like purpose and goals, dependencies and risks, and the effects of people’s decisions on their interests.