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How do you know when a technology development project is going off the rails?

A few years ago, the Standish Group Chaos Report found that as few as 29% of IT projects were successful and a further 19% were considered to be out and out failures. Further research by McKinsey added that 17% of some IT projects failed so spectacularly that they actually threatened the company’s viability.

These are startling figures, as any information systems projects can be time consuming and expensive, and to see them end in failure could be devastating to any business.

But is it possible to spot the signs that your technology development project is going off the rails?

How do you spot the signs?

There are four key signs to spotting there is a problem with a project. As a prerequisite the  CEO or senior management should be involved enough to be able to identify them.

Budget Slippage

A project can hit a disaster phase after a series of small budget slips. If numerous stages of the project are going over budget this can have a snowball effect until the entire project is over budget and potentially in the danger zone.

There are various reasons a project is under budgeted, including:

  • Under quoting – some contractors under quote to win the business, meaning the costs will spiral, or if it was a fixed price quote the contractor has to deliver on it potentially bankrupting themselves.
  • False sense of accuracy – For some projects especially something that has never been done before – such as building a new piece of software from scratch – providing an accurate quote is difficult, as there is no precedent for time, hours or deliverables.

Technical Debt

Technical debt is something specific to software development, which refers to the costs of rework to a project once a shortcut has been made to meet a business or project deadline. In short, technical debt is about the work you will have to do tomorrow to counter a shortcut in order to reach a deadline.

This can end up being very expensive and can cause more problems further down the line as choosing the quick and easy option could mean the software needs constant ‘fixing’ or tweaking in the long term.

Unclear brief

Projects can fail due to faults in the original brief such as:

  • Poor risk assessment – where project risks have not been assessed adequately and therefore not included in the brief and therefore have no contingency plan.
  • Poor scope – the scope of a project should outline all activities, resources required, timelines and expectations. If this is vague the project is not likely to be successful.
  • Miscommunication – this is where what the supplier is expecting to supply is different to what the client is expecting to receive. If there is a miscommunication it can result in re-work, more expense and bad feeling.
  • Non-delivery – Although not always due to a poor brief it could happen that at the end of the project the expected product is non-deliverable.


Communication between the project manager and the executive business sponsor is an important part of the project success, and a clear sign there is a problem is if communication falters in some way.

Alternatively, there could be misreporting up the chain of command. Misreporting of project statuses is thought to be one of the biggest reasons that some projects fail. But it is not always malicious and could be due to:

  • A ‘no news is good news’ environment
  • Optimism on behalf of the project team
  • Mistrust between teams resulting in misreporting
  • CEOs or senior management ignoring the negative reports
  • A general fear of blame leading to ‘covering our backs’

Riding the wave

If you have spotted the signs then you are in a better position to prevent them from derailing the project. If, however, you aren’t quite sure what the next step is, you could always give Brandon Cross a call. They can run an independent assessment of your project and offer no nonsense advice on how to get it back on track.