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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.

Why didn't the project use an iterative delivery approach to hone requirements and interfaces early? Why not start with site pilots and betas months or even years before the Oct. 1 launch date? The project was underway for more than three years, yet nothing was made available until Oct. 1. And why didn't the government effort leverage public cloud capabilities (or approaches) to enable efficient scaling? And where was the horizontal scaling design within the application to enable easy addition of capacity for unexpected demand?

These techniques appear to have been fully missed in the website implementation. Furthermore, the website code appears to be sloppy, not even using common caching techniques to improve performance. So in addition to suffering from weak sponsorship and ambiguous requirements, this program failed to leverage well-known technology and design best practices.

One would have thought that given the scale and expenditure on this program, the government would have assigned top technical resources and applied those best practices. Now the feds are scrambling with a "surge" of tech resources for the site.

While I wish the new project leaders and implementers well, this surge will bring its own problems. Ideas introduced now may not be accepted or integrated easily. And if the project couldn't handle the "easy" technical work -- sound website design and horizontal scalability -- how will it handle the more difficult challenges of data quality and security?

What To Do?

Clear sponsorship and proper governance are table stakes for any big IT project, but in this case more radical changes are in order. Why have all 36 states and the federal government roll out their healthcare exchanges in one waterfall or big bang approach? The sites that are working reasonably well (such as the District of Columbia's) developed them independently. Divide the work up where possible, and move to an iterative or spiral methodology. Deliver early and often.

Perhaps even introduce competitive tension by having two contractors compete against each other for each such cycle. Pick the one that worked the best and then start over on the next cycle. But make them sprints, not marathons. Three- or six-month cycles should do it. The team that meets the requirements, on time, will have an opportunity to bid on the next cycle. Any contractor that doesn't clear the bar gets barred from the next round so that there's no payoff for a contractor encouraging endless changes. And you have broken up the work into more doable components that can then be improved in the next implementation.

Finally, use only proven technologies. And why not ask the CIOs or chief technology architects of a few large-scale Web companies to spend a few days reviewing the program and designs at appropriate points. It's the kind of industry-government partnership we would all like to see.

If you want to learn more about how to manage (and how not to manage) large IT programs, I recommend "Software Runaways," by Robert L. Glass, which documents some spectacular failures. Reading the book is like watching a traffic accident unfold: It's awful but you can't tear yourself away. I expand on the root causes of and remedies for IT project failures in my blog post on project management best practices. And how about some government IT projects that went well? Here's one site's top 10 for 2012.

What project management best practices would you add? Please weigh in with a comment below.

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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
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.
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...
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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