March 16: London, England — New research just out has found that in a study of 73 failed IT projects, only 11 of them, or 15%, actually failed. The remaining 62 projects were described by respondents in the study as “actually rather good” (65%), “not as bad as it could have been” (23%), and “a darn site better than the last project we attempted” (12%).The research, conducted by premier independent consulting firm We’llSayAnythingForTheRightMoney Inc, consisted of telephone and email interviews with 73 IT project managers in the fourth quarter of 2005.
Niel Nielsen, senior evangelist at We’llSayAnythingForTheRightMoney, explained the motivation behind the research: “We kept seeing all these negative headlines about the very high number of IT project failures in the press, and we thought to ourselves, ‘can this be right – can so many IT projects really end in failure?’ Also we had been handed $12,000 to come up with some figures saying IT projects don’t fail much by The Institute of IT Project Success – that convinced us that we were onto something.”
Nielsen and his team started with a database of 73 projects that had been described by the business users that had sponsored the project as either an “utter” (54%) or an “abject” (46%) failure. “These were business people, and the people that actually had to sit in front of the application all day for the rest of their lives, saying that the application that had been delivered to them was arse,” said Nielsen. “They said the projects were massively over time and over budget, and also that they didn’t deliver anything like what they had asked for. But we figure that there are always two sides to any story.”
Nielsen’s team of researchers went back to the companies where those “utter” and “abject” failures had occurred, but this time they spoke to the IT departments responsible for the projects, instead of the business users.
“Suddenly we started hearing a totally different message about those projects,” said Nielsen. “The word ‘failure’ just wasn’t coming into the conversation. As far as our respondents were concerned, the projects had not been so bad after all – some were even rather proud of what they had achieved considering how stupid they said the business users were.”
“Sure, 15% of those projects were indeed described by the IT teams that implemented them as a ‘woeful attempt’ or ‘a real dog’s dinner’,” Nielsen continued. “But a whopping 85% were not as bad as you would think. They were certainly not failures in a quasi-qualitative sense.”
Nielsen cited the example of one so-called ‘failed’ project, which he could only describe as Project X for confidentiality reasons. “Sure, Project X overran by 36 months, saw a cost overspend of $3 million, and when it was finally delivered it had only met about half of the user requirements,” said Nielsen. “But the IT guy was like, ‘hell man, that was our best project yet!'”
“When we asked him if he considered the project a failure, he laughed. He actually laughed! That has got to tell you something,” added Nielsen.
Nielsen’s conclusions? “Don’t think your glass is half empty when in fact it might be half full – it’s all a question of perception.”
Nielsen and his team are now working on a white paper to be made available on their web site. How to Turn Project Failures into Successes by Lowering Business Expectations will be available in April.
* All characters and incidents portrayed and the names used are fictitious, and any similarity to the names, characters, or history of any person is entirely accidental and unintentional, especially with regards to the real-life Mr. Niel Nielsen, who is a delegate for the Danish Vegetarian Society. Incidentally, the real Mr. Niel Nielsen wrote of the 17th World Vegetarian Congress in Barcelona, Spain, 1963: “Now I’m living in Norway and have been asked by the former president of the Norwegian Vegetarian Union, Magnus Karlson, to bring to you all a hearty greeting and the best wishes for a successful Congress. Mr. Karlson has just retired as president – aged 85. He was for 35 years president of his society. If you ask me how the vegetarian movement is getting on in Norway, I have to answer: it’s not getting on at all; fewer members, less activity. And the reasons are, in my opinion, firstly, that the old leaders are going and new ones have not turned up.”
“Five years ago I was interviewed by the leading papers in Copenhagen,” Nielsen continued, “having won the championship in the Old Boys’ class in tennis, 56 clubs competing; I won by endurance – the final lasting 2 hours, 40 minutes! One of the reporters asked me if I could affirm that the members of my society were less sick than people in general. I had to answer him that on the contrary, there were in our society more sick people than in any other because people became vegetarians only when they were given up by the doctors and hospitals to find help in a vegetarian diet!” More Niel Nielsen here. Classic IT project failure here. Alliance Against Urban 4x4s here.