Why Federal IT Projects Fail (and How to Ensure Success)


As it turns out, projects are often derailed from the beginning.

In any business, it’s not uncommon to have several projects taking place at the same time, forcing organizations and their employees to play a delicate balancing act. For federal agencies and contractors, it is even more critical to appropriately juggle their projects due to the missions they are supporting.

These numerous tasks, large and small, are essential to the federal government’s efforts in aligning with and working towards their missions. Federal agencies prioritize specific initiatives, allocating resources and talent to ensure their projects are successful and their goals are met. Much blood, sweat, tears and taxpayer money is put into these projects, and yet, one in three IT projects is canceled before it’s completed.

That seems like a stunning figure. How can this be true? What goes wrong along the way for a third of every project started to be cut back?

As it turns out, projects are often derailed from the beginning. In fact, the most common problem is the lack of immediate action to get these projects back on track, allowing problems to grow until they become too large and too far gone for project managers and their teams to resolve.

Again, you might ask, how? How do these projects get to this point of no return? Unfortunately, it’s easier than you think.

From a statistical standpoint, the majority of these projects are viewed as risky. In fact, according to the Office of Management and Budget’s CIO Risk Ratings, federal leaders consider 54.2 percent of IT investments to be of medium to high risk before they begin. Additionally, federal employees—specifically project managers—working on these projects can grow too close to them, causing them to lose sight of the big picture and become blind to underlying issues because they are too invested. Nearly half of all project managers miss their mark by either overspending or under delivering on projects they complete.

There is an answer though. Coming from someone who has been through his share of successful - and challenging - federal projects, here are tips to avoid the common pitfalls and remedy these project before they turn to ruin.

1. Properly Define Projects

In order to ensure a project ends successfully, it needs to start off on the right foot. Well before a project begins, it is important for those involved, including project managers and those executing on all steps along the way, to understand what the final product should look like when the project is wrapped.

Establishing what a successful project looks like, and defining how individual roles must perform in order to make it successful, can help each team member ensure that things are going smoothly along the way.

2. Meet in the Middle

There is a reason people refer to it as being “stuck” in the middle. Project managers are tasked with the often difficult responsibility of managing both up and down: ensuring a project meets the vision and expected return set forth by their executive leadership while maintaining proper and timely execution from their day-to-day staff.

Project managers should establish regular check-ins with both executive and execution teams to connect on developments along the way, enabling them to keep both sides of the organization informed and on track.

3. Address Early and Often

More often than not, in federal IT, a project will not work itself out on its own. Just as agencies take the time to develop the process before beginning the project, it’s important to take time along the way to analyze the project and its progress thus far. Doing so enables managers to recognize when something goes awry and then to address it immediately, instead of learning of a mistake or concern when it’s too late to do anything about it.

4. Treat All Projects the Same

The most successful project managers are those who can keep their teams happy and their projects on track, and the best way to do this is by treating all IT projects the same. While agencies’ underlying missions or the anticipated outcomes of a project differ from project to project, the processes needed to drive federal IT forward is the same across the board.

By defining projects before they begin and recognizing the warning signs of a potential project derailment before it occurs, project managers can keep projects on time and within budget, closing the gap on those 33 percent of projects that haven’t previously been completed.

John Marinaro is the vice president for KeyLogic’s federal civilian agency portfolio. He is a recently retired member of the Federal Senior Executive Service and led several critical programs/projects at NASA and Federal Aviation Administration.