The Cost of Troubled Projects

By J. LeRoy Ward Print this article Print

Better project management is critical to getting projects done on time and on budget.

See also When IT Projects Go Very Wrong.

Troubled projects afflict organizations worldwide, in both commercial and public sectors, as they regularly experience higher than anticipated costs, unmet schedules and unfulfilled requirements. The high rates of project failure -- particularly among information technology projects -- often has an impact an essential business strategy and operations. Study after study details bleak project results, while government reports and company case studies offer specifics of unsatisfied stakeholders from project outcomes. The added pressure from the economic downturn to do more with fewer resources makes these dismal results all the more disconcerting.  However, research and experience show that effective project management can save organizations millions in lost revenue.

Troubled Projects In the United States and Abroad

High rates of project failure have been well documented in recent years. Widely quoted studies from The Standish Group over a several year period show that: 

  • More than half the projects are challenged, usually due to cost or schedule overruns.  
  • Project failures account for 15 percent of all projects.
  • Project success rates comprise approximately 34 percent of all projects.
  • The lost dollar value for U.S. projects in 2002, for example, was estimated at $38 billion, with an additional $17 billion in cost overruns, for a total project waste of $55 billion against $255 billion in project spending.

And, as Greg Balestrero, Executive Director of the Project Management Institute (the largest association of project managers in the world) reports, the rate of failed projects has not changed in recent years.

Documentation from KPMG Information Risk Management found that in 2002, 59 percent of the organizations in the Asia-Pacific region experienced at least one project failure, at an average cost of $8.9 million. Africa, Europe and the Americas followed suit with an average of 56 percent of the organizations reporting at least one project failure with an average cost of $11.6 million.

In 2007, the Economist Intelligence Unit published the results of their survey of 145 senior global executives from different industries on their current and planned IT projects which showed:

  • Twenty percent of the executives reported that over half of their IT projects started in the past two years were late or over budget.
  • Only 13 percent of the executives felt their IT projects had delivered the promised features and functions.
  • Poor project management was cited as the primary cause for IT project problems.

Why the Failure?

Details from organization-specific studies bring the reasons for troubled projects into clearer focus.  For example, an audit of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the FBI failed to effectively manage its IT investments and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on projects with little assurance they would deliver their intended benefits (U.S. Department of Justice Audit Report 2002). In GAO’s study of 226 IT projects valued at $6.4 billion from 24 federal agencies, it found more than one-third (79) of the projects, deemed critical, had a performance shortfall where they did not meet one or more of the following criteria: 

  • establishing clear baselines.
  • maintaining cost and schedule variances within 10 percent.
  • assigning a qualified project manager.
  • avoiding duplication with other projects.

Examples at the state level provide additional information on why projects fail.  The state of Texas reported that, of the 48 large-scale projects reviewed, project delivery delays averaged 14 months, with cost overruns exceeding $352 million. Contributing factors included: 

  • a general lack of project-level quality control.
  • poor project management. 
  • increased levels of  project complexity (Texas State Auditor’s Office 2003).

The state of Wisconsin’s review of 184 IT projects valued at $292 million that have been started or completed since 2004 determined that troubled projects have cost the state more than $122 million. Lack of project management and oversight were cited as the main cause of troubled projects (2007).

A high IT project failure rate even led the Colorado State Legislature to take the highly unusual measure of passing a law requiring the state government to develop policies on best practices and the verification of project managers and analysts. The law affects major automation system development projects (Digest of Bills 2006).

This article was originally published on 2009-06-09
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