Thursday, December 18, 2008

We May Look Back Fondly on Our 68% Project Failure Rate

The report [PDF] referenced here -- focusing on failure originating in the business requirements realm and offering a "68% project 'failure'" headline -- inspired two thoughts.

First, it remains a head-scratcher why nearly every project, despite talk of risk analysis and mitigation, expects to be in the 32% success area. Even if a company has the best resources (and generally it will not), many causes of project failure originate in organizational factors -- friction, process, politics -- and externalities (e.g., no budget this quarter for the tools in the original plan).

Since these issues are rarely known -- and, I would argue, actively denied in the sense that whistle-blowers and problem-spotter are systematically excluded from planning (at best) or forced down or out -- the average "expected value" of the d100 role is way less than a 68.

In startups, I've heard the excuse that the whole company is a "long shot" -- as though that justifies taking on disproportionate risk in each project implementation.

In enterprises, it seems as though management is so used to failure (in a timeline or budgetary sense), that they have simply redefined success to mean anything that they can pull off in their tenure -- and if that means a system that kinda works, but no one likes, shipped in 200% time and 400% budget, well, that's just the "reality" (which, to be sure, it is once all other possible paths have been discarded).

This redefinition of success also has the side effect of removing accountability and pretty much assuring a nice bonus and making strict accountability impossible.

Another thought inspired by the report is how the gap between enterprise development and small / startup development is widening. On the one hand, large businesses could benefit from the high-productivity tools and agile approaches popular with startups; for a variety of reasons ranging from policies to personnel, they are not exploiting the latest wave of technology, and it's costing them.

On the other hand, what they need regardless of tech is solid analysis and estimation capabilities. Analysis and estimation are possible, but hard, and the agile camp has moved mountains to try and reframe the problem so that they can advocate punting on all of the hard parts of these disciplines. That works great for the hourly agile consultants, but inside large businesses and large projects, it just doesn't cut it. A business needs to be able to attempt to estimate and plan months or even years of a project (hence the prevalence of "fake" agile in companies that purport to use it).

The fact that the business does a horrible job with the estimation today does not mean that the organization (which, generally, is run by business people not developers) won't keep planning and targeting in the large.

The result of these two pieces (different tech, different process) is that enterprise and small development are moving farther and farther apart, which is a damaging long-term trend. Ideally, these two groups should be learning from each other. They should spend more time moving in the same world.

The enterprise learns that it probably doesn't need JavaEE and Oracle and a big planning process for myriad internal utility apps that could be done with Rails at a fraction of the cost and effort. The small company learns that relational integrity, transactions, estimation, and operations management are sometimes both necessary and profitable.

Even more importantly, individual employees in the industry can cross-pollinate ideas as they move between these environments over their careers, sorting fact from fiction and getting better at determining what will work.

The farther apart these groups are, the less appealing it will be for "startup guys" to work in an enterprise or a startup to hire on an "enterprise guy."

This trend -- since it keeps useful knowledge hidden -- can only help a 68% failure rate go up.

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