Lack of business leadership is most common cause of IT project failure

Top 5 causes of IT project failure

There has been quite a lot of research into the causes of IT project problems. This ranges from rigorous academic research, through to informal studies, carried out by management consultancies amongst their clients. I have reviewed the majority of those in the public domain 
and found a surprising degree of consensus. Here is my synthesis.

Top 5 Causes

  1. Unclear business objectives and linkage to strategic priorities
  2. Lack of executive and senior management support
  3. Poor quality and changing requirements
  4. Lack of user involvement
  5. Poor planning and risk management

It is worth keeping in mind that definitive project autopsy is rarely possible. The causes given are, therefore, the collected opinions of what went wrong in respondents’ particular projects. These are always going to be blurred by a certain amount of subjectivity. 

Furnishing specific examples of each cause is tricky. Only the most spectacular of failures make their way into the public domain. In my experience, organisations usually like to forget about projects that have failed to deliver against their business cases. There is usually a “lessons learned” exercise but these tend to be superficial because of the natural desire to move on quickly from failure. They also tend to look at secondary causes because blaming individuals is embarrassing. At best the "lessons learned" exercise will result in some minor process tweaks, buried deep in a document somewhere, rather than any fundamental change.

Even when a failure is as spectacular as the Sainsbury’s Warehouse Automation Project which made it into production in 2003 but was later scrapped in 2005, with a reported write-off of £260 million, private sector organisations do not talk openly about root causes. That’s not surprising, given the top two causes in the list above. Together they can be summarised in one word: leadership. It is bad enough that shareholders find out about failures. Admitting that the failure occurred because of a lack of leadership at the most senior levels would need a resignation letter alongside. It’s easier to blame the technology or the supplier. But projects usually fail because of people not technology.

FBI wrote off $170 because of poor business leadership

Private sector “spectaculars” do, however, get publicly scrutinised for causes, because there are public bodies whose remit is to dig into what went wrong.

The FBI Virtual Case File Project

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Virtual Case File” Project that was written off in 2005 , after spending $170 million.

In a report to the relevant Senate Committee by Glenn A. Fine, the Inspector General of the US Department of Justice, he concluded that:

“The main responsibility for the failure with rests with the FBI”, not the IT supplier

The FBI it engaged its supplier 
  • without providing or insisting upon defined requirements
  • specific milestones,
  • critical decision review points
  • requirements kept changing"

NHS wastes $2.7 billion due to weak management  

In the UK, ultimate public scrutiny is conducted by The Public Accounts Committee, a committee of Members of Parliament.

NHS Detailed Care Records Project

In 2011, the committee published its conclusions and recommendations regarding the Detailed Care Records Project, part of “The National Programme for IT in the National Health Service (NHS).” Its conclusions were that:
“weak management and oversight of the Programme have resulted in poor accountability for project performance.”
  • the project “has been unable to deliver its original aim”
  • the project “was unable to show what had been achieved for the £2.7 billion spent to date” - yes the number is correct 

Inexperience of IT Sponsor is top cause of IT project failure

In one way or another, these two public projects above cover all of the top 5 causes listed above. They demonstrate that even when a project is high profile and expensive, leadership can go missing in action. 

In 2005, two of the UK’s government agencies (The National Audit Office and the Office of Government Commerce) published a document entitled “Common Causes of Project Failure”. 

National Audit Office - Top 5 causes of failure

  1. “Lack of clear links between the project and the organisation's key strategic priorities, including agreed measures of success.
  2. Lack of clear senior management and Ministerial ownership and leadership.
  3. Lack of effective engagement with stakeholders.
  4. Lack of skill and proven approach to project and risk management.
  5. Too little attention given to breaking development and implementation into manageable steps”