10+ things that can send an IT project off the rails

Depending upon the unique aspects of a situation, a multitude of reasons can cause a project to go out of control. Here are some of the most common risk factors.

Note: This list, which is based on the article "How to identify a failing project" by Jason P. Charvat, is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Sloppy requirements

Every project depends upon solid user requirements being firmly locked down prior to any work being undertaken. Failure to do so is a leading cause of project failure. Somehow, the trend is that many project teams think they can get started by rushing the requirements-gathering phase. These projects are then eagerly started with incomplete requirements. If you are developing a project using a standard waterfall methodology, any incomplete requirements will have both a negative cost and schedule impact on the project. On iterative development projects, user requirements are still of utmost importance, but they can be negotiated ahead of any actual development.

#2: Schedule slippage

Many times, project schedules spiral out of control when dates and deliverables aren't aggressively monitored and tracked on a daily basis. All too often, managers leave issues unresolved for days, which then results in schedule overruns. I recommend that that you check project schedules daily.

#3: Budget overrun

Projects that run over budget are sometimes more prone to being canceled because senior executives are concerned about cash going into and out of company coffers. If a project starts showing gradual cost overruns, it's often still given a chance. But as the losses mount and show no sign of recovery, canceling the project may be necessary. In reality, though, some projects are so critical to business survival that they can't be stopped. Therefore, the cost overruns are simply absorbed or skillfully transferred elsewhere. This means that project managers must manage their actual budgets against the planned budget and keep their stakeholders aware of any deviation.

#4: Scope creep

When clients insist on ever-increasing changes to the product being developed, scope creep can jeopardize the project. I don't know of too many project managers who can handle too many changes all at once. An even more difficult situation for a project manager surfaces when new changes are introduced after the project has been launched. This usually drives up the cost, resource requirements, deliverables, and completion time. Scope creep needs to be managed and the project manager needs to have a change control process in place to assess the impact and cost of the change and, possibly, negotiate the change for a future release.

#5: Poor planning and estimation

Those projects that are poorly estimated and planned tend to fail both in cost and schedule, which eventually causes the overall project to fail. Managers tend to start projects without relying on proper analysis and sizing and fail to consult subject matter experts or cost estimators to validate how much project work packages will cost.

#6: Poor documentation

Maintaining inadequate project documentation is cause for concern and should raise the red flag. Lessons learned from many failed projects reveal that there was too little documentation to adequately describe the project in its broader terms and serve as a clear communication channel.

#7: New technology

Projects that require integrating new tools and deploying new vendor applications/devices are always far more difficult because usually, only the vendor engineers clearly understand the limitations and functionality of the products. This results in delays in project schedule and could require weeks or months before the products are stable enough to be deployed. If a project is undertaken using new technology, managers should be aware of the associated risks and plan their schedules accordingly.

#8: Poor communications

One of the biggest reasons why any project goes bad is due to a lack of communication. I have seen many projects fail simply because no one understands what to do and receives no communication regarding current progress. Inevitably, this results in project failure.

#9: Poor decision-making

Decisions that aren't made at all and decisions that are delayed due to second-guessing are both risk factors. In addition, some decisions are so turned out-of-context as responsibility for them is passed down the line that they end up being made based on faulty information. This doesn't bode too well for any critical project.

#10: Poor project management

The person managing the project may not have the skills or experience to pull it off. Yes, any project can be stuck with a lame duck manager. In such cases, it may be necessary to stop the project, replace the project manager, make the necessary adjustments, and start again. The departing manager should be given the option to provide his/her version of the story, though, before moving on.

#11: Poor testing

A big culprit on any project is having either too little testing or, in many cases -- if a test team is involved -- testing too late in the process. Both testing and quality assurance need to be built into the project from the day the project is launched.