Why So Many IT Projects Fail: A 'People First' Companion to PMBOK

Why does IT have such a mediocre (read “dismal”) project delivery track record, especially given that we’re so skilled at technology and process? How can we improve our success rates? Are we focusing on the people aspects of our project delivery? Are we putting our people first?

This article begins the discussion of how IT solution providers can employ proven people aspects of Project Management in their IT system development projects.

IT Project Failures – A Mediocre Performance

Imagine you are about to build your dream home. You sketch out the overall design, and add a few touches like vaulted ceilings, huge beams and solid wood doors. The exterior doors and windows are imported, selected for their beauty and security. The cabinets are hand crafted and the countertops a high-grade granite. The entrance way is featured on the front cover of House Beautiful Magazine. The “smart home” automation is state-of-the art.

Exciting, right?

But as you do your research, you discover that:

  • more than 40% of home building projects go over budget,
  • half of new homes are not ready on the date you are scheduled to move in
  • 30% do not include everything you had contracted for, and
  • one in seven are not actually completed.

Would you build that home?

Fortunately, those numbers are NOT true of the home building industry. However, they ARE true of the IT industry in describing its dismal record of implementing systems – at least according to a 2017 study by the Project Management Institute (PMI).

How is that even possible? As an industry we pride ourselves on our technical skills. As an industry we excel at process. We spend millions, if not billions, training our project staff in various processes and methodologies to manage our projects with utmost efficiency and effectiveness.

Yet we continue to have project failures.

So, what’s missing? Why do we keep missing project deadlines? Why do we continue to overrun project budgets? Why do we tolerate the bleeding of profits? Why do we accept failure?

Have you ever worked on a failing project? Or on a project that has failed outright? It’s not a pleasant experience, no matter where in the project hierarchy you find yourself. Lost profits, dissatisfied clients, tarnished reputations, damaged careers, adverse references … feel free to add your own negative consequences.

Failing Projects Leave Money on the Table

Clearly, our industry has a problem. As IT professionals, as IT project managers, we owe it to our customers, our executive and our project teams to STOP LEAVING MONEY ON THE TABLE:

  • to our customers because a fair profit for IT is indicative of a great end result for the end-user organization;
  • to our executive because profitable projects lead to more work, more success, more career growth; and
  • to our teams because it is only through our project staff that we can have any kind of success at all.

Back to the question: How is it that with first-rate technical skills and focused attention on process, the IT industry (that’s us) continues to have such a mediocre record in implementing systems? How is it that projects continue to come in late with substantial loss of profit and massive budget overruns?

Put People First – Focus as Much on the People Aspects as on Technology and Process

I strongly believe that projects fall short or fail completely because the IT industry (remember, that’s us) does not place the same focused attention on the human factors, the people aspects, of managing projects as on technology and process.

Think of an IT project as a three-legged stool. The legs of the stool represent the three essential elements of any IT project: technology, process and people. If even one of the legs is wobbly – and it only takes one – the entire stool becomes wobbly.

So often that wobbly leg is the people leg.

As an expert in implementing large systems, with over 40 years in the trenches, I believe that when the IT industry (that’s still us) masters the art of managing the people aspects of systems development projects, a far greater number of projects will be successful. With success comes satisfied end-users, satisfied project staff, greater profits and intact budgets.

In my own consulting practice, I have seen this time and time again: the most successful projects were ones where we put people first – where we put our project staff and our end-users first.

Would You Like to Learn How to Make Your Projects More Successful?

You know deep down that many of your projects could be run better. If you could just do a few things differently, your projects could be more successful. It’s more than creating Gantt Charts, estimating resource loading, defining critical paths, calculating earned value and utilizing meeting templates. In other words, you’ve figured out that all that stuff peddled in all of those PM courses is basically sterile and boring, and makes managing projects about as much fun as peeling the wallpaper from your grandmother’s walls (within time and budget of course).

I’m not saying that all that technical Project Management know-how is not necessary. Indeed, it is. But there is more to Project Management than a bunch of linked tasks displayed on the “war room” wall, action items, status reports, risk analyses and (yawn) budget analyses. I strongly believe that a healthy dose of warm humanness (yes, those much maligned “soft skills”), augmenting that beautifully framed PM certificate on your wall, will make you a more rounded, more interesting, highly sought after and more SUCCESSFUL project manager.

And so, I ask:

  • Project Managers: Do you want to be a more effective PM?
  • IT solution providers (IT vendors and internal IT departments): Would you like to drive more profit to your bottom line or manage the project budget more effectively?
  • End-user organizations (you who are the recipients of these IT systems): Do you want to be able to trust your IT providers, and be on a more equitable footing with them?

At a time when more than 40% of projects are over budget, when fully half are implemented late, when 30% do not include everything the end-user had contracted for, and when one in seven are not actually completed, it’s time to look at project delivery more holistically, beyond just technology and process.

52 Project Management Success Tips

Join me over these 52 weeks to explore proven tips, techniques, skills and attitudes that can be readily learned and utilized to increase the likelihood of your project success.

I will be exploring the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) in relation to what I believe is missing in the PMBOK – proven strategies of focusing on people as much as on process, indeed of putting people first. I want this to be a discussion of how we together can raise the bar for project success. Comment on this blog; follow me on social media; tell others about these discussions.


Merv Jersak
If you want your IT projects to come in on time and within budget; if you want your clients to be your best ambassadors and your project teams to be committed to your success; if you want to stop leaving money on the table – then Merv Jersak is the mentor and coach who will work with you to help attain the results to which you aspire. With more than 40 years’ experience as an IT Project Management and systems consultant, Merv works with IT solution providers and end-user organizations, focusing on the people aspects of project delivery to drive more profit to the bottom line and to have fewer budget overruns.

To learn more about Merv’s service offerings, or to hire him to speak to your organization, visit www.PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com.

EMAIL merv@PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com // LINKEDIN www.linkedin.com/in/mervjersak

52 Project Management Success Tips from Merv Jersak  •  Copyright ©2020. All rights reserved.