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10/28/2013
09:56 AM
Jim Ditmore
Jim Ditmore
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Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?

Obamacare's website problems can teach us a lot about large-scale project management and execution.

By now nearly every American has heard about or witnessed the poor performance of healthcare.gov. Early on, only one of every five users was able to actually sign in to the site, while poor performance and unavailable systems continue to plague the federal and some state exchanges. Jeffrey Zients, the Obama appointee called in to fix healthcare.gov, promised on Oct. 25 that the site "will work smoothly for the vast majority of users" by the end of November.

Soon after the launch on Oct. 1, former federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, in an Aspen Institute interview with The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, shrugged off the website problems, saying that "glitches happen." Chopra compared the healthcare.gov downtime to the frequent appearances of Twitter's "fail whale" as heavy traffic overwhelmed that site during the 2010 soccer World Cup.

But given that the size of the signup audience was well known in advance and that website technology is mature and well understood, how could the government create such an IT mess? Especially given how much lead time the government had (more than three years) and how much it spent on building the site, (estimated between $300 million and $500 million).

This project failure isn't quite so unusual, unfortunately. Industry research suggests that large IT projects are at far greater risk of failure than smaller efforts. A 2012 McKinsey study revealed that 17% of lT projects budgeted at $15 million or higher go so badly as to threaten the company's existence, and more than 40% of them fail. As bad as the U.S. healthcare website debut is, there are dozens of examples, in both the government and private sector, of similar debacles.

In a landmark 1995 study, the Standish Group established that only about 17% of IT projects could be considered "fully successful," another 52% were "challenged" (they didn't meet budget, quality or time goals) and 30% were "impaired or failed." In a recent update of that study conducted for ComputerWorld, Standish examined 3,555 IT projects between 2003 and 2012 that had labor costs of at least $10 million and found that only 6.4% of them were successful.

Combining the inherent problems associated with very large IT projects with outdated government practices greatly increases the risk factors. Enterprises of all types can track large IT project failures to several key reasons:

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-- Poor or ambiguous sponsorship

-- Confusing or changing requirements

-- Inadequate skills or resources

-- Poor design or inappropriate use of new technology

Strong sponsorship and solid requirements are especially difficult to come by in a political environment (read: ObamaCare), where too many individual and group stakeholders have reason to argue with one another and change the project. Applying the political process of lengthy debates, consensus-building and multiple agendas to defining project requirements is a recipe for disaster.

Furthermore, based on my experience, I suspect the contractors doing the government work encouraged changes, as they saw an opportunity to grow the scope of the project with much higher-margin work (change orders are always much more profitable than the original bid). Inadequate sponsorship and weak requirements were undoubtedly combined with a waterfall development methodology and overall big bang approach usually specified by government procurement methods. In fact, early testimony by the contractors indicated a lack of testing on the completed system and last-minute changes.

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humberger972
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humberger972,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 3:36:13 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
55 Contracting firms, and multiple interfaces with systems that have no mapped out data standards. Duh .... to many contractors in the system, no data standards, gareenteed fail, the question is why is anyone surprised? Put out one standard for data, and have fewer contracting firms involved. CSDP standards would help as well, oh....and not having the final requirments til the last few months...... imagine that.... also betting they didn't pick the best languages for large business systems, but the language and tech that each contracting firm was most confortible with, so not just different data formats coming in, different tech / languages talking to each other....joy
DragonDagger
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DragonDagger,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 8:57:45 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
There are no data standards among insurance companies. This website is suppose to overlay like a Kayak or a Hotels.com does in their industries. Maybe ACA is forcing such standards but I doubt it. This whole process was caused by the insurance companies as they got the single payer system removed from the original ACA bill.
thephilsimon
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thephilsimon,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/30/2013 | 11:47:32 AM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
Agreed. 55 firms? That's insane. I cover this topic in Why New Systems Fail. I'm just not a big fan of multiple vendors. Given the size of this project, I can understand the need for more than one. But 55 is far too many.
Workofwisdom
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Workofwisdom,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/1/2014 | 1:42:30 AM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
IT project will continue to fail as long as we refre them as IT project.These are buisness projects and accountabilty of its success should be with busness, There should be a different project governance and management struvture.

 

Arindam

10 best practices to make IT project successful
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Strategist
10/29/2013 | 4:33:45 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
Actually, at launch, only 1 in 10 could log in, not 1 in 5.
LogicalThinker
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LogicalThinker,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 4:34:03 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
I believe the blame belongs squarely on poor choices at the very beginning to roll out such a huge SDLC project using Waterfall Project Management. Clearly, Agile combined with a gradual roll-out would have uncovered all of the problems sequentially rather than in the big bang of problems that are now being experienced.
Frankly, I am very surprised that the liberals have not yet blamed the ObamaCare website problems on the vast right-wing conspiracy.
DragonDagger
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DragonDagger,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 9:02:10 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
Right about the development process wrong about all the other stuff. Remember ACA is modeled after a program in Mass. create by that Romney fellow, a "right" type.
Zman7
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Zman7,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/31/2013 | 5:39:00 AM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
Waterfall or agile - either methodology isn't to blame for such a disaster. Exchanges have been done thousands of times before. There's no excuse for this one except bad management and politics.
BDC-IT
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BDC-IT,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 5:18:25 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
There were so many issues with this roll out, beginning with requirements, that there is not enough space here to comment. Jim made some good suggestions as to what should have been done, but they are not available now, unless you start over completely and that isn't really practical. The one thing that wasn't done that could still be done is to appoint an overall program executive, reporting to Sebelius, with access to the President. A big mistake not having done this from the beginning, and there are more systems issues, very similar to the web site, that will affect delivery that the public does not yet know about.
LogicalThinker
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LogicalThinker,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 6:13:06 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
Alas, it seems that in this case there was plenty of time to do it right the first time and not enough time to do it over! Ironic!
However, it is not too late to switch to an Agile Kanban and Scrum solution to rescue the failed project. An executive reporting to Sebelius and/or Obama will not fix the issues. An iterative step-by-step, issue-by-issue, sprint-by-sprint approach is their only hope... and a log-in counter that limits the number of users on the site to a manageable number until that infrastructure issue is resolved.
An old software axiom states that bringing more resources onboard a late project makes it later. Been there and seen that!
BDC-IT
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BDC-IT,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 6:33:38 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
The problem has been a lack of leadership and driving folks to execute a plan, not the techniques used. You won't be able to get the step-by-step approach off he ground, much less successful, without a proven Program Executive, with visibility and support as noted by Jim. If all is done is follow your proposed approach, then your old software axiom will kick-in.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
10/30/2013 | 4:25:32 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
The problem, evidence suggests, is both, not one or another: weak leadership; poor technology choices and implementation methodology.
Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
10/29/2013 | 7:46:48 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
"a surge of tech resources"
Oh that sounds promising... More chefs can surely make the stew taste better, yes?
Herberio
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Herberio,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 8:45:59 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
One other element I would add is the fact that an IT implementation is no other thing than an automation of one or more business processes, so the bigger the project the larger the business processes (and functions, and concepts, and policies) involved,
so if they are poorly defined (deficient enterprise architecture) the "IT system" would be doomed to fail.
C6Silver05
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C6Silver05,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/29/2013 | 10:37:09 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
It has been fascinating, being in IT leadership, to watch someone like a President get caught up in the maelstrom of a technology project. Despite what everyone not accountable for one of these projects might tell you, this stuff isn't easy most especially if you are dealing with changing requirements and lack of leadership. However, it is also extremely easy to Monday morning quarterback these projects even from those of us who should know better.

What I don't know is, and perhaps I missed this information in other articles, what the actual testing and roll-out plan looked like. Certainly the author of this article did an excellent job in detailing out all of the ways in which projects can fail. It seems so obvious in retrospect but rarely is that obvious within the moment. Can we say that there really were no PoC's and CRP's along the way to a final UAT? If these occurred, did any include some kind of load testing simulation? Were their appropriate test scripts such that people knew what "right" looked like?

It would be a great service to the project community if eventually a postmortem was done in the context of "open government" so that the charter, scope, risk ledger, WBS, and test plans can be analyzed. How many levels of decision makers were there, what was the issue escalation path, and what were the specific qualifications of the architectural team?

I certainly appreciate the author's points and again hard to argue with the logic. However, not all points are hard and fast rules and there are many ways in which to reach success. They clearly didn't reach success here and like all such projects that have launch problems everything looks like an incompetent debacle. The real answers will be something less black and white.
Zman7
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Zman7,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/31/2013 | 5:45:53 AM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
IMO, reading between the lines, there was never any UAT performed - or it was done and the results were faked/fabricated.

You can bet there will never be a release of any of this projects plans. The outcome is such a huge embarrassment to the companies and politicians that they will never allow such to occur. The general information systems management community would rip them apart no doubt!
vjampana570
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vjampana570,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/30/2013 | 6:07:40 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
I agree with the reasons of failure and
suggestions. Another thing I noticed in a prior project was that the Project
Proponents/Sponsors/Client leaving not facilitating or connecting these vendors
and expect things to work miraculously. Often Vendors are not in a position to
push the project proponents/sponsors/client teams enough to make this happen.
Each vendor having their responsibilities, budget constraints and changes
ignore the integration touch points and hence the disastrous outcome.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2013 | 3:42:11 AM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
Not even just sloppy code, but too much of it! Over 500 million lines. (The tech community has criticized Microsoft for coming out with an operating system ten percent that size as way too bloated.) One wonders if they were paid by the line of code!
NoorjahanS976
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NoorjahanS976,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/1/2013 | 11:23:32 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
This is the first time in history when the president of the United
States of America is blamed for the quality of a software. But why that
software is broken? Here's the root cause of it: http://quest-to-achieve.blogsp...
letsdothis!
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letsdothis!,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/7/2013 | 7:45:29 PM
re: Why Do Big IT Projects Fail So Often?
They hired 55 contractors, 112 different computers across the country. They didn't have time for end to end test exchange and there was no proper testing done under controlled conditions to check the quality of software (QA, QC). There was a lot of communication gaps between systems. Software engineering was not followed from the start of the project. Software requirements were not defined well enough and kept changing (due to defects) in the middle of the project with no clear instructions. Technical staff was separated from underwriters which was a big factor in the failure as they both go hand in hand. Diagrams known as "concepts of operations" were also not shown to the states as to how a federal exchange would look like. Also lot of states leaning towards federal exchange made the model (SDLC) more complex and the fact was not mentioned in the requirements/specifications.
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