11 Reasons Software Projects Fail And How To Avoid Them

Successful software projects may not be rare, but they fail more times than you would think. Here are 11 common traps that development teams can get caught it, and the ways to help you avoid them.

Software projects are a bit like space travel. Let’s say heading to the moon, for example. It’ll be amazing once you get there, and worthy of a grand celebration, but there’s going to be some incredibly challenging moments along the way

And many moments of failure.

Of course, we got to the moon, celebrated it, and went back a few more times with one well-documented exception.

Unless your company is designing software to help put us on Mars, more humble, earthbound endeavors would seem a cakewalk in comparison.

But they’re not, are they?

In fact, software projects can ... fail ... a lot.

Any number of issues can work against your project team and derail even the best of ideas. When a software project does fail, it can leave many in your organization scratching their heads and frustrated at the lost time, resources, and opportunity.

Knowing the pitfalls, however, can help you and your team avoid them. So to ensure your next project successfully comes to fruition, even if it doesn’t result in a walk on the moon, look out for these 11 trouble spots.

1. Absence of Vision

Let’s start with one of the fastest ways for a well-intentioned idea to quickly crash and burn - proceeding with absolutely no direction.

You might have a seed of inspiration, but if there’s no real application for it or it doesn’t solve an inherent problem for an organization or end user, it will quickly devolve into an exercise of spinning wheels.

To avoid wasting your resources on something that has little life beyond the one inside your head, perform some due diligence.

Does developing the idea answer a fundamental question within a specific business?

Does it address particular challenges and create efficiencies where none previously existed?

Does it add value to a brand or industry with functionality or marketability?

Answering these questions first will help you determine if your vision has a future.

2. Little Buy-In From the Top

The level of buy-in necessary for a project to succeed varies based on the relationship you have with a client. If you are dealing directly with the top of the food chain, their blessing is obviously their buy-in, and your motivation is to deliver as they have requested.

However, if you are working through a contact a little lower in an organization’s hierarchy, it's critical to figure out how far up the ladder the commitment goes.

Even if the higher-ups give the initiative the green light, do they honestly understand the software’s end goal? Are they going to approve additional resources should the project hit a snag or if it requires more development time?

It might seem a slam dunk that everyone is on board at the outset of a new program, but always make certain that your clients and their bosses clearly understand the benefits of the project and are committed to seeing it through. This is particularly true of the leaders who hold sway over the company finances.

3. Your Team is Ill-Suited to the Task At Hand

This particular shortcoming of project management can manifest itself in a number of ways.

Do you have a team that is too large, creating unnecessary bureaucracy? Is your team understaffed, with too much work and too few to handle it?

Is the group collectively inexperienced, and your focus is too much on training than it is on developing?

Is the team getting along, or are there too many clashing personalities and not enough collaboration?

Whatever the faults, a poorly chosen team will unnecessarily sabotage the quality of the final product, if it even lasts long enough to reach its latter stages. To set yourself up for the most favorable outcome, choose individuals that have the necessary technical skills and the right temperament to work as part of a team.

Further, don’t overburden your group with more than it can manage and ensure everyone has a specific role to play. The sooner your team gels, the sooner you’ll start seeing positive output.

4. Communication Skills are Less Than Desirable

It is practically a cliche in every segment of business, but little or poor communication will do more to harm your project than almost anything else on this list.

From failing to broadcast changes in a plan to team members choosing not to voice their opinions, poor communication can stagnate your group's creative drive and grind everything to a halt.

Communication, however, is not solely limited to the direct participants in the project.

Investors, clients, or anyone else with a stake in the outcome should not be left guessing about aspects that directly (or in some cases, indirectly) affect their interests.

Not everyone will care about the nuts and bolts of how the project progresses, but let them filter what they want on their own.

Open, transparent communication will breathe plenty of life into a project by keeping everyone on the same page.

5. Rigidness Rules the Day

Being a great project manager (which explore in more detail later) means having a laser-like focus on the task at hand. It can also result in putting on blinders and ignoring suggestions or disregarding tools that might prove helpful in finder a more efficient path over the long term.

Certainly, the next idea isn’t always the best idea but structuring your project in a manner that stamps out flexibility will almost certainly lead to dead ends and lack of innovation. In other words, don’t be impervious to change and make sure no one in your group is either.

This concept applies to your team members as well. Those that bristle at suggestions or criticism may harm the unity of a team by working against a necessity to be adaptable to change.

Set your goals, yes, but foster an environment where anyone on the team can make recommendations, problems can be quickly solved, or you can easily incorporate a change in outside influences into your final deliverables.

6. Failing to Set Goals and Meet Milestones

So what’s your endgame? Do you know the points along the way that will get you there? If you succeed, will you even know that looks like?

At many points throughout a project's development lifecycle, plans will change. It's a near-certain inevitability. However, without having a finish line to strive for and checkpoints to keep you tracking in the right direction, you could find yourself with disconnected ideas and a lot of unrealized potential.

Before any actual work starts, figure out what the outcome should be. Even if it's loosely structured, it will provide a measurable goal to work toward. Take it further and break the project down into stages, each with their own set of deliverables.

Knowing where these individual guide posts stand will help you maintain an accurate timeline for the next phase, the next set of goals, and the project's ultimate conclusion. An ongoing status report will also make it easier to communicate updates to any interested parties that may require it.

7. Not Owning Up to Reality

Two weeks early, under budget, and a piece of technical mastery that will change the world. Certainly, you’ve at least come in under budget a few times.

Sure, the above software development trifecta is every client's dream, but the reality is far from dreamy. Few things create friction like a client making unreasonable demands of a project team, and the group being unable to deliver.

Instead, be honest about your capabilities. If a client makes a specific request, but you’re uncertain of what’s genuinely possible in a fixed amount of time with equally set funding, make it known. Don’t agree to any terms until you understand the demands and if they are achievable.

Many of your clients will have grand ambitions. It's wonderful they are looking to you to deliver on them. Don't get caught in the lure of trying to pull off a miracle.

Avoiding one of the most common traps in development - overpromise and underdeliver - is simple. Be honest about what's achievable and what it would take to do even more.

8. Misunderstanding the Project

Admittedly, this particular failing of project management is a broad topic.

Involving everything from choosing technology that doesn't align with your deliverables to poor choices in structure to relying on outdated protocols, the inability to realize project needs will result in a cumbersome and underwhelming piece of software. That’s if you are able to finish it in the first place.

To steer clear of a technological meltdown, carry out some research to determine the tools that best meet the requirements of an assignment.

Look at past projects to determine if methods evolved. Then, adjust accordingly.

Be cognizant of building something that could be outdated or the end user is unable to update within months of completion. Along those same lines, is your creation overkill for its intended purpose?

Will the learning curve be too steep or will the platform be too unwieldy?

A little bit of tech testing on the front end will save you from developing something that is dead on arrival.

9. Operating in a Vacuum

You may well, in fact, have the next great whatchamacallit on your hands, but if it misses the mark on what the end user needs or wants, they’ll be calling it a failure.

Even with a brilliant team of developers on your side, they may be unable to grasp key flashpoints that could make or break the final design and usability of the program (recall that we already noted what happens when you have blinders on).

Don’t disregard the input from those that stand to benefit most from your project - the people who will be using it. Openly seek it out. Soliciting user input from the word “go” will ensure you maintain a clear idea throughout the development process of the software's use and how it can perform best.

10. Zero Insight into the Client

While we’ve touched on plenty of the project-specific failures that can occur, what about a few of the external pressures that might bring about an unfavorable end to a well-intentioned project? One of the most overlooked is overlooking the client.

Although they may have hired you specifically to deliver a product, it's not just any product. It's their product, meant to serve as a crucial addition to their processes, culture, and brand. If you miss the mark within the first few milestones, you may not get the chance to reach more.

A large portion of your due diligence should start at understanding the client. How they work, their positive attributes, and their inefficiencies. This insight helps you from an engineering standpoint - to avoid crafting software overtly boilerplate. Not only that, it assists in developing a tailor-made solution that doesn’t just solve a problem, it enhances a firm's operations.

Aside from the immediate deliverables, you'll build a reputation as a go-to developer that “knows us” and will be called upon when future needs arise.

11. Devoid of a Strong Leader

Finally, let’s look at the setup for a hypothetical project.

The concept is genius, clearly a winner for the client and the developer.

Programmers, engineers, and coders are at the height of their game.

There’s buy-in from top to bottom and side to side. And, even without a project manager to oversee the plan, everyone is jacked with the promise of brisk and free-flowing ideas and communication.

Yet, the project still has a very good chance of failing. Why?

Perhaps its missing proper time management. Or responsible budgetary oversight. Imagine the consequences should either suffer from mismanagement. Not just a dreadful combination for losing a current contract, it can prove costly towards future business. Who in the above scenario is equipped to handle that?

A project manager, of course.

Without the single most crucial aspect of any development team - the leader - to pull these disparate pieces together, the project has no focus, no equilibrium, no future.

A good manager is not necessarily adept at the skills necessary to execute the demands of a project. They do however possess the acumen to give voice to reason, motivate effectively, keep everyone focused and on task, and driving them towards the same goal.

A great project leader raises the quality of the team they serve, even if that team is average. Without that guiding presence, however, even the best of groups will struggle to succeed.

Final Thoughts

Now, by no means is any of the above meant to scare someone away from project development. Far from it.

The reality is though that projects do fail and for a multitude of reasons. While software project management is not - wait for it - rocket science, it offers up plenty of roadblocks that can test your resolve. (Of course, if for you it is rocket science, that's impressive, but all of our previous points are vitally important to you as well).

Awareness, proper planning, and diligence are critical to facing both the minor and major issues that will undoubtedly arise during a project.

The better prepared you are to confront the challenges the more successful your projects will be. After all, you may not make it to the moon anytime soon, but there’s no reason you and your project team can’t aim for it.


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