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How to spot a failing IT project (and what to do about it)

Unless you’re a journalist, a failed IT project is a bad thing. Jobs have been lost, reputations destroyed and millions of pounds wasted, as a result of projects sliding out of control.

The good news is that by knowing what the signs are, you can spot projects that are failing, or are at risk of doing so, and put in place measures to rectify matters.

So whether your end customer is within your organisation, or an external client, here are the questions to ask, and what to do once you identify a project that’s in trouble.

How to spot the signs of a failing IT project

While the signs may be obvious, there can also be more subtle indicators that things are amiss. Here are some of the questions to ask:

Is the project on-schedule, and within budget?

If either answer is ‘no’, what’s being done to track and communicate this, manage the disparity and incorporate new information into the plan? How will the delay or overspend impact the customer? Does the customer know?

Is the customer happy so far?

Even if the project is on-schedule and within budget, is the customer happy with progress? Speak to key stakeholders to find out if there are any friction points.

What are your project team members focusing on in the immediate term?

Is everyone telling you they’re working on a particular feature, to be delivered by a given date? Is there a clear overall goal for the team? Vague or inconsistent answers are a sign things could be going wrong.

How are people spending their time?

It’s not uncommon to find lots of busy people, but not be able to articulate what they’re doing or what benefits their work is resulting in. Is a lot of low-value work taking place? Are certain tasks taking disproportionate amounts of time?

Run an audit of how time is being spent, so you can reprioritise people’s work, if necessary. Look at the source data from your time and project-tracking tools, assuming it’s sufficiently detailed.

For each project, is there a single source of truth of the current in-progress work?

Ask yourself if this list of work is relatively short and fresh, or are there a lot of in-progress tasks?

How is work being prioritised?

Are tasks being prioritised based on business value and bringing forward risk? Or are teams preferring to do the ‘easy’ work first, and leaving the complex, riskier tasks until later?

What do different stakeholders believe is ‘done’?

Do you get consistent answers from different people, including the end customer?

How to recover a failing IT project

In an ideal world, your investigations would reveal that all is well. But in reality, it’s likely you’ll find something that warrants further action, even if it’s only an early intervention to gently steer a project back onto the right course.

Note that the most beneficial interventions may not be the most obvious. Tackling the cause of an issue could be more advantageous in the longer term than tackling its symptoms, even if that symptom is causing immediate pain. Below are some of the things to do or ask.

Can you change the project deadline or scope?

Pressure on projects is often caused by the inability to meet a deadline. Find out what needs to be delivered by that point, and why. Is there scope to change the deadline, or deliver a key business outcome for that date, with other elements coming later?

Can you split the project?

If parts of a project are largely independent of one another, there may be opportunities to divide the work between teams, who could be internal or outsourced. This can sharpen each team’s focus, thereby helping accelerate delivery.

Tweak the delivery processes

Where the issue with a project is down to the way the team is working, look to implement tactical process changes. These must be carefully thought-through to ensure they’ll make a difference quickly enough to alleviate the short-term pressure on the project.

Could you re-allocate resources?

This might include people, budgets and facilities.

‘Reset’ the project

In some cases, it can be beneficial to pause and re-assess project requirements based on learnings to-date. This will enable you to re-prioritise and re-plan in a way that aligns with current circumstances, then restart with renewed focus.

Bring in external support

Supplementing your teams with outside help can have multiple benefits, and is generally a straightforward sell to your CFO if the issue is genuinely one of capacity-shortage. If it isn’t, then simply adding more people to a project is unlikely to help.

Additional resource could be individuals or an entire team. Done in the right scenarios, it will relieve pressure, and likely boost morale. External people can also introduce fresh ideas and help instil best practices that make your teams more effective in the long run. If external support is something you’re considering, we’ve written a separate article on how to successfully outsource all or part of your IT project.

Early intervention is key

IT projects are complex undertakings. With large numbers of stakeholder needs to meet, as well as technical, cultural, legal and regulatory complexities to work within, it’s not uncommon for even the best-laid plans to go amiss.

This in itself doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily end up as the next big “expensive IT failure” story in the media. Instead, by asking the right questions to keep tabs on your projects, and taking steps to guide problematic ones back onto the correct course, you’ll be able to deliver on your customers’ needs – and sleep well at night.


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