Root cause of software project failure

While reading Glen Alleman’s blog, I came across an article in CrossTalk – The Journal of Defense Software Engineering – that discusses the core problem of project failure. The article was titled, Knowledge: The Core Problem of Project Failure. I found the article very interesting as the author, Timothy Perkins, asserts that knowledge is the core problem of project failure.

I tried to relate the article to my own personal experiences working in the IT consulting/professional services industry. I have noticed poor project planning, unclear requirements, unrealistic schedules, ineffective communication as some of the common causes for software project failure. I found the article insightful as it explores some important questions about project failures and tries to expose the root causes.

Having led and participated in more than 10 Independent Expert Program Reviews1 (IEPRs) for the Software Technology Support Center and the Tri-Service Assessment Office, and having spent my military career as a project/program manager, several individuals have asked if there is a common thread among programs or projects that are having difficulty. The answer is yes. Some expect the thread to be project planning, others risk management, and others expect one of the other project management themes. However, the root causes can be reduced to two issues: either project managers do not have the knowledge they need, or they do not properly apply the knowledge they have.

I tried to explore the assertion that Knowledge was the core problem from various angles and determine if I found it to be equally valid. While examining the premise of the article, I asked myself what caused project managers  to not apply the knowledge they had. I loved the simplicity of the assertion and it did not feel simplistic. At the same time, I was questioning if the root cause could be boiled down to knowledge. Would digging deeper help us uncover other factors?

The article seemed to emphasize personal responsibility on the part of the project manager to navigate the projects toward success. I was reminded of Jerry Weinberg’s books on Quality Software Management where Jerry mentions the importance of mental models that Project Managers employ and the ability to act courageously in situations where PMs feel afraid, threatened, and under emotional  strain. I could sense some parallels with what Jerry talks about in his book and the article.

Given the emphasis on the project manager and knowledge, I wondered if software teams and other team members had an equal responsibility on navigating the project towards success. If the proper knowledge was not applied, couldn’t the team members provide the necessary leadership? How much does the environment and culture play a part in the success or failure? By focusing on the individual, were we missing the environment? I was reminded of Deming’s quote on the system playing a major role in performance.

The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

I was also reminded of Barry Oshry’s work and his Top-Middle-Bottom systemic model. I believe Oshry’s thoughts and ideas about the Mindless Middle may help explain why project managers do not apply the knowledge they have.

Overall, I found the article very stimulating and believe it provides clarity around some thorny questions about software project failure.

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