When Your IT Project Is Doomed to Fail

There is an old saying in golf that every golf bet is won or lost on the first tee.  For those of you who are non-golfers, non-bettors, or both, the first tee is where golfers’ handicaps are discussed/negotiated and where they establish the number of strokes the better players will “give” the other players to even up the match.

The specifics of golf handicapping are somewhat beyond me (kind of like quantum physics or Microsoft software licensing, in that “necessarily complex” category), but the overall gist of it lines up with a very simple formula for project success that I learned as part of PMP training:  “Success Equals Results Minus Expectations”

We were also taught as project managers that the time to negotiate the project’s constraints is at the outset.  Once you agree to the project charter in the initiation phase and the project schedule in the planning phase, it gets a lot harder to negotiate or to complain about them later, even when legitimate reasons for doing so exist.

This week’s Congressional hearings about why the enrollment portals for the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) reminded me of many of these things.  Seeing and hearing IT executives wish, retrospectively and very, very publicly, for more time to test their solution prior to rollout made me sad because I knew that their chances for success
were depressingly low right from the outset.

When time is your primary project constraint, the only other constraints you can tweak are
quality and cost, and even adding resources/cost do not necessarily reduce time (in fact, they tend to increase it — see also Brooks’ Law from the classic:  “The Mythical Man-Month“).

I do not envy the IT consultants who tried to build the ACA sites — that was a tough job, and I doubt they’ll realize much profit now (Congressional scrutiny, I would think,
would tend to have a dampening effect on profitability).  So, what can we learn from this?

The lesson for me is that Project Managers get their first, best, chance, prior to the first tee, to walk (or run) away when we know we can’t win.  Here are some great ways to assess your chances up front by looking for project “red flags”  (I love #3, personally):

“11 Signs Your IT Project Is Doomed”

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