Almost a third of IT projects are at risk of failure, representing an estimated loss in turnover of about £250bn to the UK economy according to new research from Axelos, custodian of the project management methodology Prince2.
The findings, based on a survey of 500 project leaders, are a reminder of the risks that attach to technology projects in today’s global economy for companies large and small.
For finance leaders, the research is also a warning never to take project delivery for granted, on projects large or small, in a context where all the stats show that UK productivity needs to improve.
More than three-quarters (76%) of the project leaders who responded said the global economic climate played a role by producing a more competitive environment that made projects tougher to deliver.
The survey revealed that over the past 12 months project budgets and timelines have become tighter, according to 74% of the project leaders.
A similar proportion said stakeholders now demand more value for less outlay, and almost half (48%) admitted that profit margins had narrowed.
More than half (55%) said they also have to deal with evolutions in business practices, which make projects more complex. The changing face of business also increases risk for 58% of the project managers surveyed.
Half, too, said they face challenges in finding the right people to resource their projects.
Complexity and productivity
According to Axelos, the high incidence of project failure can be attributed less to external factors than to processes that are not robust enough, especially those relating to resourcing and skills.
Peter Hepworth, chief executive of Axelos, said: “In recent years, we have seen many evolutions in business practice, which have, in turn, made many innovations possible. But as new practices emerge, they add a layer of complexity to project delivery, and organisations need to handle this with confidence if they are to deliver competitive advantage.
“In today’s complex environment, maybe everyone needs to know how to be a project manager, but many professionals haven’t yet learned the skills required to deliver high levels of project success,” said Hepworth.
“Never has it been so important to build a solid foundation for project success. If we want to improve levels of productivity and project success, then we have to ensure that the people delivering projects have the necessary skills, knowledge and resource.”
Reasons for failure
So why are IT projects failing? Respondents to the survey saw many causes, among them:
- Significant changes to the project brief (45%)
- Unrealistic timeframes (41%)
- An incomplete understanding of the risks (48%)
- Projects not resourced with the right people (42%)
- A lack of clearly defined goals (49%)
- Overrun budgets (32%).
UK government projects
The findings also chime with research and analysis into UK government projects.
Last year the UK's spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, warned that a third of the government's major projects due to be delivered over the next five years are on track to fail.
In its progress report on major government projects, the NAO said that 37 out of the 106 projects due to finish by 2021 are "in doubt or unachievable if action is not taken to improve delivery."
There are currently 149 projects in the government major project portfolio, with a combined lifetime cost of £511bn and an expected spend of £25bn in 2015-16. Of those, 40 are IT projects, with a whole lifetime cost of £20bn.
The risk profile of longer-term tech projects is also changing because the world is transforming so quickly, with developments like artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced data analytics moving the goalposts.
Axelos, which is a UK government and Capita joint venture, has put out research recently that says 57% of project managers expect AI and machine-learning to have a profound impact on project management, with 59% believing that as automation increases many of the daily routine tasks of project management will no longer be a burden on them. At the same time, 90% agreed that new technologies would generate risks which need to be managed carefully.
Axelos head of product development Cameron Stewart said of AI: “Automation may make certain tasks easier, but, ultimately, emotional intelligence and soft skills such as communication, diplomacy and relationship-building will be vital for the delivery of successful projects. Great project management will always combine a people-first approach with high-grade technical project management skills and knowledge.”
What are your secrets for the successful delivery of IT projects? Or do you have any tips on what not to do?