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Why Software Development Projects Fail: Common Causes and Solutions

By Stuart Smith | April 13, 2023 |

Software has the potential to bring about innovative solutions and revolutionize the way businesses operate. Whether you are building a mobile application, web application, or desktop app, custom software development can bring new efficiencies and revenue streams to your business. Applications, whether internal or external, bring benefits to all user types.

However, success is never guaranteed. The road of software development is bumpy and filled with pitfalls. In fact, upwards of 40% of IT projects fail. In this article, we will discuss some of the common causes of software development project failure and provide solutions to help avoid some of these pitfalls.

Reason 1: Inadequate Planning and Requirement Gathering

The most common reason for software development project failure is inadequate planning and requirement gathering. A project without a clear and well-defined scope is more likely to fail than to succeed. In fact, we have an entire article on the importance of a thorough product plan.

In short, without proper planning, the project risks major delays, cost overruns, and ultimately, project failure.

Solution: Well-Documented Requirements

Requirements must be clearly defined, understood, and agreed upon by all stakeholders.

Involve stakeholders early in the project. Engage in active communication throughout the project. Document all requirements and get buy-off early. Avoiding changes late in the development cycle keeps the project on track and on budget.

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Reason 2: Lack of Strong Project Management

A Project Manager can make or break your project.  A project requires proper planning, organization, and management to ensure success. Without a dedicated Project Manager, projects quickly become chaotic, with duplicate tasks, missed deadlines, and misused or overallocated resources. Too many projects run over budget or miss delivery milestones due to poor management or communication.

Even the most well-documented project will fail if the person overseeing the development lacks the skills necessary to get the job done. The Project Manager is critical. They lead the project, set the timeline for milestones and deliverables, and secure the right resources. They handle the translation of requirements, task assignment, and execution. Project Managers are ultimately responsible for the project coming in on time and on budget.

Solution: Retain A Dedicated and Experienced Project Manager

The best practice is to assign a dedicated Project Manager to lead the project, provide clear goals and objectives, and implement a project management methodology. The ideal candidate has experience or certification with best practices in project management, like SCRUM or Agile.  They are strong communicators, both written and verbal, with the ability to understand technical requirements and business logic.

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Reason 3: No Dedicated Product Manager

The role of a Product Manager is often overlooked even though it is critical to a project’s success. This position is completely distinct from the Project Manager. The Product Manager provides the vision and product direction while the Project Manager handles the execution. A lack of clear direction from a Product Manager can lead to projects running awry and missing the intended mark once complete. A lack of strong product management can also lead to a “Design by Committee” situation where all the stakeholders end up having to approve every small change or addition, which leads to lengthy delays and cost overruns.

Solution: Empower a Sole Point of Contact for Product Decisions

The Product Manager prioritizes functionality and drives the vision. Ideally, this is a separate position from the Project Manager but can be a dual role in a pinch. A strong Product Manager clearly understands the intent of the application. They must know the core competency of this application and what features and functions are most important to solve the problem or fill its intended need. It is vital to have a sole point of contact for the project that truly owns the product and is empowered to make decisions on its own.

Reason 4: Insufficient Testing and Quality Assurance

Poorly tested software can result in bugs, crashes, and poor performance, which can ultimately damage the reputation of the business. While this appears obvious, many software development projects fail because they overlook this critical component in favor of satisfying budget or timeline requirements.

For example, many projects don’t consider the effective load placed on an application once it is launched. Without load testing, high-volume applications will likely experience problems post-launch.

Solution: Don’t Skimp on QA

An investment in quality assurance can save a lot of money later.

Ensure that sufficient time and resources are allocated for testing and quality assurance. Automated testing tools can streamline the testing process and reduce the risk of bugs and crashes. Load testing for high-volume applications performed in the production environment ensures that the application can support the intended user activity and volume with acceptable performance.

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Reason 5: Poor Communication and Collaboration

Communication is the keystone of any successful project, not just software development. But in a scenario where stakeholders and collaborations may have varying degrees of technical or industry knowledge, communication makes or breaks the project. Lack of communication and collaboration leads to misunderstandings, misaligned expectations, and ultimately, project failure.

Solution: Establish Open & Transparent Communication

Encourage open and transparent communication among all stakeholders from the first meeting. A culture of collaboration and open discussion keeps everyone aligned. This affects all parts of the project, from planning to regular updates and project reviews.

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Reason 6: Unforeseen Technical Issues or Hidden Complexity

Technical issues and complexity can also lead to software development project failure. Projects that are too complex, have unrealistic timelines or require cutting-edge technology can quickly become overburdened and fail. Often business processes can seem simple to those that are responsible for them every day. But software developers might not be familiar with these processes, which may undercover complexities that those day-to-day managers might not consider as they view the operations through a different lens.

Solution: Accept Known Unknowns

Even the most well-planned projects uncover additional complexities or questions as they go. It is nearly impossible to account for every unknown. However, that doesn’t diminish the importance of realistically assessing the technical requirements of the project. The better the development team understands the processes and logic, the earlier they can untangle complexities and estimate the effort.

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Reason 7: Scope Creep / Loss of Direction

Software development is exciting, and many creative ideas occur during the process. Often, these new ideas are outside the original scope and intent of the application. It is easy to lose sight of the original intent and add features to the application that you think the end users will love.

Adding features to an application will increase the development effort required and increase the cost. The additional scope will also lengthen the timeline.

Adding complexity can also make an application less intuitive. This can make the learning curve for an application steeper and may require additional training for the end users.

Solution: Stick to The Plan

It is typically easier to know what functions will fill the original need rather than to try to predict all the features a user might like. It’s best to start with the development of a Minimum Viable Product that solves the problem or fills the need with the minimum functionality required. You can always add additional features in a later release.

Strong Product Management plays a key role in ensuring the development process does not go off track and sticks to the original intent of the application. Never lose sight of the main reason why you decided to develop the application at the start.

It is important to consider this issue when using an Agile development methodology. Because Agile methodologies are intended to allow a team to pivot and make changes to the scope throughout the development process, it is very easy to get off-track. When using an Agile development process it is still very important to have a simple product roadmap that provides a clear direction for the application development and to stick to the plan.

risk assessment for why software projects fail

Software Development Doesn’t Have to Be Scary

Software development projects can be challenging and complex, but with proper planning, management, and execution, they can be successful. By understanding the common causes of project failure and taking steps to mitigate these risks, organizations can ensure that their software development projects are delivered on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

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