Why do many small and medium enterprises risk software project failure by using unskilled personnel?

By Peter Meyer, Principal Consultant, Elkera Pty Limited

The preceding topic: Unskilled personnel; the biggest software project failure risk for SME software projects, assessed the risks for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) of using personnel who lack software project expertise for software project planning. It was concluded that using unskilled personnel is a serious risk magnifier and likely to result in under-performance or failure of the project.

An obvious question is: If using unskilled personnel is a serious cause of software project failure, why do many SMEs continue to take that path?

In the writer’s experience, there are three main barriers in the way of SMEs engaging an expert consultant.

Barrier 1 – Misunderstanding the nature of business software

Managers with little software project experience might not appreciate the issues involved in planning a software project. They may think that all they need to do is present a general outline of their problem to a solution provider who will then take care of the rest. Based on those simple objectives, managers assume that someone in-house can do the necessary planning.

That mindset often arises when managers have not had to really think about the nature of business software. Business software is not a normal product. Rarely, if ever, can you just install it and start using it effectively. Business software is part of a complex system of processes and workflows that involve your staff and customers. The software, and your business processes and workflows must be aligned.

Long observational experience has shown that few people without prior software project experience have an intuitive understanding of the issues involved in planning software projects. Direct experience and education are essential. That may lead managers to fail to appreciate what business software is really doing or understand the software planning risks that must be managed.

Barrier 1 appears to be an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people with low experience or ability at a task overestimate their ability. In this case, they overestimate their understanding of the risks involved in software project planning and do not take appropriate steps to mitigate those risks.

Business managers need to have a wide range of skills. Without having relevant experts on staff, SME managers are at a disadvantage. If managers of an SME have not acquired skills in software project planning, that can be a problem when a new software project is proposed.

Barrier 2 – No evident business case for engaging an expert consultant

Even if managers do have a perception of need, they may still resist incurring the cost of an expert consultant. External consultants may be perceived as just a high cost. Managers might not see a business case for engaging a consultant.

In the writer’s observation, if a manager does not see a business case for engaging a consultant, often it is because the business case for the whole project is yet to be made.

This is a really difficult problem and business managers are right to be cautious. How do you establish the business case for engaging a consultant if the underlying project has no real value attached to it because its goals are unclear?

Barrier 3 – Fear of hiring the wrong consultant

Managers may agree that expert planning is desirable but not be confident in the result. How do you find the right consultant? Without prior experience, it is difficult to distinguish between unsatisfactory and suitable consultants. If managers fear hiring the wrong consultant, they may fall back to using internal personnel for project planning because they appear to be lower risk. Unfortunately, the use of unskilled, in-house personnel for project planning actually increases risks overall.

The next topic, Overcoming the barriers to using experts for small and medium enterprise software projects, explains the best approach is to overcoming this problem. It requires proceeding in small, low cost, low risk steps to validate your hiring decision at the start of the planning process.

Next steps

Elkera offers a resource pack to help build the case within your organisation.

Download now: A Pitch to Management to Engage an Expert Planning Consultant.