15 ways to screw up an IT project

Paul Simon famously sang that there must be 50 ways to leave your lover. Similar could be said (if not sung) regarding projects: There must be 50 ways to screw up your IT projects. Indeed, ask IT executives and project management experts, as CIO.com did, and they will rattle off dozens of reasons why projects go astray. For the sake of brevity, however, we are starting with the top 15 ways to derail a project--and how to avoid these project management pitfalls.

1. Having a poor or no statement of work."I've seen many projects encounter troubles due to the lack of a well-defined project scope," says Bryan Fangman, senior project manager at Borland, a Micro Focus Company.

"Despite the best planning efforts, change is inevitable, so having a clear statement of work up front is essential in getting agreement with the customer on what will actually be accomplished," Fangman says. "A poorly constructed statement of work (or absence of one) will lead to ambiguities that are hard to resolve and you will never truly know when the project is finished," he adds.

2. Not setting expectations up front. One of the key ways to screw up a project is to not create a roadmap and define project requirements and expectations for all stakeholders at the beginning of the project.

[Related: 7 Must-Have Project Management Skills for IT Pros]

That's why "before we start any projects, I make sure that everyone on both the customer team and project team have a clear, documented understanding of two primary things: What we are going to do, and how we know when we are done," says Tim Garcia, CEO, Apptricity, which provides service-oriented architecture (SOA) for asset management enterprise resource planning (ERP). "Without documented agreement on the answers to these two questions, the project is in danger from the start."

3. Not securing management buy-in. "Executing a project without securing sponsor support is not only counter-productive but also a recipe for disaster," says Brad Clark, COO at Daptiv, a provider of on-demand Project Portfolio Management (PPM) solutions. "It's imperative to be on the same page with the sponsor for a project to move in the desired direction and get organizational buy-in."

4. Using the same methodology for all size projects. "Most project management methodologies have a standard set of key tasks and deliverables for enterprise IT projects," says Robert Longley, a consultant at Intuaction, a coaching and consulting company.

"Most methodologies are designed around projects of a certain size (i.e., $1 million plus)." Longley says. "If you have a project that is $100,000 and you try to use the standard approach, you may find that it costs more to do the deliverables than it does to do the actual project."

[Slideshow: 16 Steps to Surefire IT Project Success]

5. Overloading team members. "Your team members are not machines," says Dan Schoenbaum, the CEO of Teambox, a cloud-based collaboration and project management company. "Pay attention to how much work each individual member is assigned," he says. "If one member is overloaded, the end product will suffer. Utilize the strengths of your team and spread out the workload as much as possible. This will avoid overwhelming your team."

6. Waiting or not wanting to share information."Waterfall approaches to project delivery--where results are not presented to users and stakeholders until late in the project--introduce risk and often lead to disappointing results," says Garcia.

That's because "users often don't know what they want until they can actually see, touch and work with it," Garcia says. That's why he recommends using an agile, iterative approach to project management. "Iterative projects delivers results in short, quick phases, with the most critical and complex components delivered first."

[Related: Why Your Next Big IT Project is Doomed]

7. Not having a clearly defined decision-making process. "While user involvement and feedback are critical, successful projects also need a clear and defined decision-making process," says Garcia. "Project teams should embrace change, but change decisions need authoritative approval, agreement and documentation. Understanding the process and chain of command keeps everyone reading from the same playbook."

8. Not using a project management software system."Excel spreadsheets relegate project managers to manual intervention and worst of all, 'walk the floor' status updating," says Brian Ahearn, CEO, evolphin Software, the developer of digital asset management software.

[Related: 7 Tips to Help Project Managers Track Their Tech Teams]

"Project managers need a solution that automatically updates project status each time a task is completed, alerts you when a task is past it's due date and will provide a complete and up to date project status report," he says. "The best tools free the project manager from the tyranny of manual reporting and allow them more time to drive critical tasks."

9. Allowing scope creep (or excessive scope creep). "Loosely defined and unclear project scope, halfway surprises and frequent change requests can lead to increased timelines, increased cost, escalations, a demotivated team and, most importantly, an unsatisfied customer," says Sandeep Anand, vice president of Project Governance at Nagarro, a high-end software development firm.

[Related: 13 Tips for Keeping IT Projects Under Control]

To combat scope creep, "ensure project objectives are understood, deliverables are defined and the project is monitored daily," Anand says. That said, change requests are a fact of life in projects. So it is a good idea to "budget for scope creep and have a defined process for accommodating change requests."

10. Being afraid to say "no." Part of being a good project manager is being "an educated advisor," says Markus Remark, vice president, Customer Operations, TOA Technologies, a provider of field service management software and solutions.

[Related: Time and Distance Enemies of Agile Project Management]

"This means knowing when to say 'no' to a request, whether because it's not in the best interest of the company, the project, the end-users or the customers," Remark says. "Knowing how to say no and offering a constructive alternative solution" can prevent a project from becoming derailed or delayed.

11. Not being a team player. "Every project has a team that is expected to work together to successfully complete the work," says Hilary Atkinson, director of Project Management at Force 3, a business solutions provider.

"The project manager is the hub of the team, the process and the solution. Yet many young or new project managers make decisions without consulting with the team and without gaining approval," Atkinson says. "Without that communication and approvals, the project is headed for disaster. The project manager cannot manage a project schedule, budget or scope without the team."

A related danger is that "the project becomes 'our project' rather than a 'company project,'" warns Gordon Veniard, a veteran management consultant and the owner of thevenworks.com. And "instead of focusing on achieving the goal or getting it right, [team members or whole teams] then spend time looking for others to blame, defending their own position or refusing to co-operate with other teams," he says.

"It's like a non-performing sports team where the defense blames the offense; the offense then blames the defense; and the coach berates the referee. They've temporarily forgotten about winning," Veniard says,

12. Poor communication. "One of the primary responsibilities of the project manager is to communicate," says Atkinson. "Communication keeps everyone on the team up to date with the current status, next steps and any issues."

However, "too many times projects managers feel they are too busy managing day-to-day tasks to take the time to communicate," Atkinson says. "This is a critical mistake and often the demise of a project. If the PM does not send out the meeting minutes, status reports and follow-up emails, he is increasing the risk for delays, risk for conflict and project failure."

13. Too many, too long status meetings."Nothing sucks the life out of a team more than a status meeting," says Liz Pearce, the CEO of LiquidPlanner, an online project management provider. "Sure, there's some important information in there, but all too often the same information could have easily been shared through a collaborative system," she says.

Her advice: "Reserve team meetings for decision-making. For instance, Agile teams have daily 'stand-ups' which are useful in quickly identifying and removing obstacles," she says. At Liquid Planner, they've developed a happy medium: twice weekly triage meetings, "where we review any new work that's come in, assign owners and refocus the team on high priority tasks. It's a way to processing our collective 'inbox' and stay on track with deliverables."

14. Not caring about quality--the "good enough" syndrome. "Due to different factors, such as schedule or budget pressure, it might be tempting to reduce the effort on quality assurance (QA)," says Sergio Loewenberg, senior manager, Business Consulting, Neoris, a global business and IT consulting company. However, a "lack of proper QA will result in a weak end product," he says.

"If the quality standards drop, the project will experience negative consequences such as re-work, liability and reduced margins," Loewenberg says. So the project management team needs to understand "that the cost of preventing errors is lower than the cost of fixing them."

15. Not learning from past project management mistakes. "In every completed project plan there is a wealth of intelligence that rarely gets mined," notes Pearce. "Why did our project ship date slip by a month? How comprehensive were our initial specifications? How accurate was our team at estimating their tasks? A key benefit of using a project management tool is the ability to access the data that can provide answers to these questions," she says. "If a team is committed to self-improvement, they'll reap significant rewards by spending a few hours conducting post-project analysis."

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees and partners.

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Read more about project management in CIO's Project Management Drilldown.

This story, "15 ways to screw up an IT project" was originally published by CIO.

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