How to Avoid Dead Projects

by Johanna Rothman. Originally published in Cutter's Business-IT Alignment E-Mail Advisor, October 6, 1999.

I visit many different organizations over the course of the year. As I begin working with a client, inevitably someone whispers to me, “Can you help kill my project?” I don't normally kill projects, but some folks are so desperate to stop working on already-dead projects, they think a consultant can help. These people can see the misalignment in their organization — between the projects the organization requires and the funded projects — but they think they need outside help to stop working on hopeless projects.

You can identify the already-dead projects yourself, by asking some questions.

  1. When is this project due? Can I ship this project in time to meet its release date?

If you haven't started a project in time to meet its release date, you are creating a dead project. If you can't meet a project's release date, don't start it. At least, don't start it under no-win conditions. Make sure the project environment (staffing, tools, and other resources) will support the release date.

If you can't release this project in time to meet its due date, have you explained when you can release the project, given its current state? Come to think of it, have you explained what it will take to release the project at all?

If you can't figure out a way to make the project succeed, it will become an already-dead project.

  1. Is the project feasible? Does anyone have the technical knowledge to do the project?

If you haven't done all the necessary investigation, you don't really know whether the project is do-able. It's a good idea to go back and look at when the project was funded and under what circumstances. You may want to talk to those people and ask what made them fund the project. It may be that your project goal should be to do more research, not to release a usable product.

If the project is not feasible (an “otherworld” project), see if you can figure out how to bring it back down to earth, to what is feasible. This is also a good time to ask for help. Chances are good no one else in your organization knows what to do either. If you don't ask for help, you will continue to work on a dead project.

  1. Will the final project meet the needs of the customers?

If you don't know who your customers are, or you haven't talked to them in six months, you will not deliver what your customers want. This is a slow, but sure, way to create a dead project.

Find out who your customers are, and keep talking to them. Involve them in the user interface development, in the attributes of the system (how fast, how much load the system can sustain, how reliable it needs to be, and so on), and what the system will provide.

To avoid creating or working on dead projects, make sure you

  1. can accomplish your project in the allotted time,
  2. can perform the project work (or know someone who can), and
  3. know who your customer is and what she or he wants.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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