Revive That Derailed Development Project

When IT consultant Mike Benz’s phone rings, it’s often a client struggling with a software development project gone bad. Recently, for example, a retailer called the certified project management professional (PMP) in Minneapolis, Minn., in a panic: They needed to change their computer software, hardware and their business practices in order to comply with new credit card security standards put forth by the Payment Card Industry (PCI). Having let other projects take priority, they ran into trouble just when they ran out of time.

Application development project failures are ubiquitous; very few organizations don’t have a sad story to tell, and often for the same reasons: too- tight deadlines with too-few resources; too much time spent on minutia; and, perhaps most importantly, solid project management practices have not been established.

You don’t have to join the “woe is me” chorus. When implementing a development project, forewarned is forearmed.

Getting Better All the Time

Although application implementations are fraught with failure, in fact, the news isn’t all bad, emphasizes Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group, a technology research company based in Boston, Mass., that tracks projects and publishes software, “Chaos Report,” every two years.

According to the 1998 report, a whopping 28 percent of all software projects worldwide failed or were not used. The number dropped to 23 percent in 2000 and then further decreased to 15 percent in 2002. Johnson attributes the decline between 2000 and 2002 to the fact that spending on Y2K projects slashed budgets for new projects. In 2004, however, the number rose to 18 percent and stayed steady in 2006. Johnson adds that in 1998 the project success rate was 26 percent, but by 2006, 35 percent of projects were delivered on time, on budget and in use.

Based on Johnson’s “waste-to-value” ratio, companies are getting a better return on their IT investment. “For every dollar we spent on software projects in 1998, only 25 cents went towards value,” explains Johnson, whereas by 2006, 59 cents went towards value. “I equate that to better project management, better project management techniques, smarter users who are able to articulate what their needs are and smaller projects that are more agile and done quicker.”

Plan to Re-plan

“What sends a lot of software projects off track is poor initial conditions at the outset; mistakes get made fairly early in the lifecycle,” says Peter Sterpe, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Mass. Software has a huge amount of variation and program requirements can easily change, Sterpe adds. “Estimating the scope of a project once and then never modifying it and sticking a team with it can really doom a project.”

In the case of Benz’s client, “There was no methodology. They were trying to solve lots of little tiny problems but they weren’t looking at the whole picture,” he says. The PCI project was low on the company’s priority list and there was no plan for fixing all the problems that cropped up.

Faced with a large monthly fine or loss of their authorization to take credit card payments, the retailer made the project the company’s top priority. Benz insisted that management put together a team of dedicated gurus in a “war room” with food delivered. “We created a visual chart of the 100 things that needed to be done and we assigned each of those specifics tasks to the gurus,” he says. “Every time someone got something done we marked it off and we all took tremendous pride in our accomplishment. We made tremendous progress in a short period of time and we were compliant with the PCI standards on deadline.”

Such extraordinary efforts derail resources and personnel from day-to-day tasks. Sterpe advises companies with “track wreck” projects to look at whether the salvage is worth it — or if it will exceed the benefits they will get from project.

Plot Your Path To Success When a project is in danger, take these steps to get it back on track:

Communicate Identify the root cause of the problems and then have the courage to let everyone know.

Fix it People often will find a “fixer,” someone with special skills, knowledge and strong leadership. Sometimes this means hiring a consultant.

Leverage the lessons After the carnage has been swept away, revisit and, if necessary, recreate the plan to conform to the new circumstances.

Know what’s going on Chart the progress on a wall where everyone can note their responsibilities, spot incipient problems and check off accomplishments at a glance. “It builds morale and demonstrates progress,” says Sterpe.