Classic Mistakes

Analysis of the examples in the “Catalogue of catastrophe” reveals the most common mistakes. Given the frequency of occurrence, these mistakes can be considered the “classic mistakes”. The following list outlines the most common themes and provides links to examples;

  1. The underestimation of complexity, cost and/or schedule
  2. Failure to establish appropriate control over requirements and/or scope
  3. Lack of communications
  4. Failure to engage stakeholders
  5. Failure to address culture change issues
  6. Lack of oversight / poor project management
  7. Poor quality workmanship
  8. Lack of risk management
  9. Failure to understand or address system performance requirements
  10. Poorly planned / managed transitions

  1. The underestimation of complexity
    In Powerpoint all projects can be made to look simple, in reality the situation is much more complex. Failure to see those complexities leads to the underestimation of schedule and budget, plus a host of other ailments. Examples

    National Health – UK
    Transit Ticketing Authority – Australia
    Denver airport baggage handling system (full case study) – USA
    State of Wisconsin – USA
    Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs – UK
    Waste Management – USA

  2. Failure to establish appropriate control over requirements and/or scope
    Since mankind first started looking into the failure of technology projects, changing requirements have been a reoccurring theme. The following examples illustrate the point.Examples

    FBI Virtual Case File system – USA
    Census Bureau – USA
    Northern Island Rate Collection Agency – UK
    Westjet – Canada

  3. Lack of communications
    Communications are the oil that allows effective decisions to be made across the team. Where communications breakdown, the effective of the decisions being made can rapidly turn bad. Examples

    Department of homeland security – USA
    Census Bureau – USA

  4. Failure to engage stakeholders
    Stakeholders are the people who need to provide key input to the critical decisions made in the project. Failure to engage stakeholders effectively is the fast-path to disaster. Examples

    Qantas airlines – Australia
    Criminal Justice Enhancement Program – Australia

  5. Failure to address culture change issues
    Although technology is the focus of many projects, failure to recognize and address culture change can derail the deployment of a new system. Examples

    National Health – UK
    Service Personnel and Veterans Agency – USA

  6. Lack of oversight or poor project management
    Delegating is easy, but unless there is an appropriate level of oversight projects can quickly go off the rails. The following examples illustrate what can happen when management’s asleep at the wheel. Examples

    FBI – Virtual Case File – USA
    Department of Transport – UK
    Department of Homeland Security – USA
    New South Wales – Australia
    University of Wisconsin – USA
    Los Angeles Unified School District – USA

  7. Poor quality implementations
    Individual bugs may be fixable, but when the number of bugs is allowed to run rampant the entire project can be put in jeopardy. Examples

    Her Majesty’s Revenue Collection Agency – UK
    New South Wales – Australia
    Lufthansa Systems – Germany

  8. Lack of risk management
    Projects are full of uncertainties and failure to identify or manage those uncertainties appropriately can rapidly see them turn into serious problems and issues. Examples

    Census Bureau – USA

  9. Failure to address performance requirements
    Performance requirements are one of the non-functional requirements a system needs to satisfy. Many projects fail to define their non-functional requirements (especially performance) and that failure leads to systems that are operationally unusable. Examples

    General Registry Office – UK
    Junior Doctors Online Recruiting System – UK

    Edinburgh Fringe Festival – UK
    Centrica PLC – UK

  10. Poorly planned / managed transitions
    The work needed to successfully transition a project from the project team to the operational environment or market place once the project is complete is an area that often gets overlooked. Failure to properly think through that transition can quickly turn what might have been a project success into chaos. Examples

    National Health – UK
    British Airways Terminal 5 transition – UK

Note that although the mistakes outlined above represent the common problems that occur in projects, the problems can be triggered by many different processes. For more information on the triggers of project failure and the behavioural patterns behind failure try the following pages.

  1. Trigger events
  2. Behavioural patterns