IT Project Management Discipline isn’t working!

In 1994, Standish group dropped a bombshell on the rapidly growing IT industry by publishing the gob-smacking rate of only 16% successful IT projects in the prior 12 months. They suggested that the reason was a lack of project management discipline for IT projects; akin to the kinds of project management discipline that engineers use to build skyscrapers, cruise liners and bridges. Standish’s conclusion: “IT needs its own project management methodology and the skills and tools to deploy it!”

The impact was dramatic. A number of efforts began across the world to develop a suite of standards and methodologies that could help project managers and their stakeholders improve the chance of IT project success. Some (e.g. PRINCE2) were based on embryonic existing methodologies, whilst others were genuine efforts to develop new methodologies from the ground up.

Over the first few years of the Standish Group results, the new project methodologies were still maturing and adoption was slow. Most practitioners did not hear of PMBOK or Prince2 until some 4 or 5 years later, so widespread adoption of these methodologies (and therefore their potential impact) lags their development. However, that initial report was 25 years ago now and we have since developed globally-adopted and widely practiced standards in (i) project management, (ii) program and portfolio management, (iii) business analysis, (iv) change management and (v) benefits realisation. Indeed an entirely new multi-billion dollar education, training and certification industry has arisen to service this apparently pressing skills gap.

So, if Standish was right and it was methodology and project discipline that was the problem, then we should by now see a significant improvement in IT project success hit rates. So lets take a look:

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Analysis: The first few Standish Reports had changing definitions and sampling frames which explains the initial fluctuations particularly between the “challenged” and “failed” categories. However, eventually the rate of “failed” projects has settled to around 20%, “challenged” to around 45% and “succeeded” to around 25%. What looked like improvements up to 2012 have since turned around and have generally headed in the wrong direction for the last few years. Some have suggested the apparent improvements up to 2012 were actually due to the increased proportion of smaller projects in the survey (particularly post-GFC). Smaller projects have always shown a higher rate of success throughout the entire period. Indeed comparing 1996 vs 2015 shows an increase of just 2% of projects successfully completed (27% to 29%).

A 2% improvement is scant justification for the enormous investment in training, standardisation, certification, discipline and management effort. The project management education industry is now a multi-billion dollar industry globally, but as far as we can tell from the above analysis, it is not contributing to improved IT project success rates. If so, then how is all of this investment and effort contributing to the economy beyond John Meynard Keynes’s hole diggers.

Us humans do lot of things because they sound right. If it has a good story (see Beware of the “just-so” Use Case Stories) that’s good enough for entire industries and academic disciplines to continue working away for years and even decades before its noticed that it is all based on nothing tangible. I’m afraid that the evidence is in:

Project Management discipline has not improved the success rate of Corporate IT projects!!

A common reaction is to just do things harder. The story that project discipline improves projects must be true. So the lack of empirical results is simply evidence of a lack of effort/discipline/application: If we just hired a more qualified/experienced/talented project manager…if we just documented user requirements more thoroughly!…if we just applied more management effort toward realising the benefits in the business case! “The floggings will continue until morale improves”. No! The problem is that Standish, even though it sounded right at the time, have proven to be wrong and there are other (much more important and prevalent) causes for such widespread IT Project failure rates. So we must look more widely for clues as to why we still have such high project failure rates. I believe some clues can be found here (over-generalisation of success in different domains) and here (the planning fallacy).

Do you agree that project management methodologies have been oversold as a panacea for IT project failure rates?