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When IT Projects Fall Behind Schedule

When IT Projects Fall Behind Schedule

Contributed by John Schmidt

We all know the pain of IT projects falling behind schedule. Morale dives. The incremental revenues from a project launch that you hoped for aren’t going to happen in this fiscal year. Instead of savings from operational efficiencies, you get hammered with cost overruns and a horde of glitches and bugs.

Sometimes, it seems that IT projects that complete on time and on budget are more the exception that proves the rule in an area plagued by over promise and under delivery.

So, what makes IT projects prone to falling behind?

Warning Signs

An important thing to keep in mind about IT is that it is still immature, incredibly dynamic and complex.  A lot is changing, and change is accelerating. Whenever you take enormous complexity and subject it to powerful dynamic forces, there is a lot that can go wrong. A few not so obvious warning signs that your project may be falling behind are:

  • Your plans contain poor or incomplete requirements. Plans should be as detailed as possible as early as possible. If they’re not, you’re not ready to move to the next stage.
  • You’re relying too heavily on “New” or “Cool” technology.  Exciting new technologies also mean more unknowns and more risk.
  • Things are moving too smoothly too soon. Green status equals red flag.  Significant risks should be emerging early and often.
  • You’re leaving the hard problems to be solved later.  Early progress can be accomplished by focusing on the easier aspects of the project, creating a false sense of confidence.  Difficult aspects of the project should be confronted early while there is still reaction time.

Avoiding Schedule Slippage

By surfacing issues early and often, you get the opportunity to re-tune or re-visit constraints.  Here are a few things to look out for:

  • Keep your cost and scope in check. Your IT team will be continuously making trade-offs amongst schedule, cost and scope.  If you’ve over-constrained the former expectations, the only place the project team will have to maneuver is schedule.
  • Allow for mistakes. If your team believes you will tolerate no errors, they will naturally become extremely cautious—and caution means slower execution. By surfacing issues early and often, you get the opportunity to re-tune or re-visit constraints. A team that’s comfortable telling you they need an additional $10K early on in the project to solve a problem can save you from a $1M schedule impact down the road.
  • Don’t shoot the messenger. When you participate in status reviews, make sure you welcome and embrace any and all issues. If your team isn’t afraid to tell you what’s really happening, they won’t feel the need to sanitize status before it gets to you, thereby ensuring the problems stay hidden.

Getting Back on Schedule


Don’t lose sight: scheduling problems can be addressed at any stage of an IT project, even near the end (though the sooner addressed, the better!). Any stage of a project will benefit from some old-fashioned, executive decision-making to help things get unstuck and moving again.  It’s up to you as a leader to get involved and help make the tough decisions.

Perfect is the enemy of good, and IT engineers are trained to be perfectionists, so it’s often up to management to help make the determination that the clock has run out and it’s time to launch.

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