SME software projects; the software project failure risk with unskilled personnel

By Peter Meyer, Principal Consultant, Elkera Pty Limited

The first topic in this collection: Why you should be afraid of software project failure, described the risks inherent in planning software projects that require external procurement. The most significant project failure risk was ‘Using unskilled personnel for planning’. This topic looks further at the project failure risk for SME software projects for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that do not have expert personnel on staff.

The SME disadvantage

Large, successful enterprises deal with software projects continuously. They have to confront project planning problems and deal with them. Those large enterprises are likely to have achieved a high level of maturity in business process management and in project management. Generally, they have dedicated expert teams of people who know how to plan software projects to succeed. However, even there, project failures can occur, particularly on very large, innovative software projects.

SMEs that do not have business analysts and project managers on staff may be at a particular risk of project failure compared to other enterprises.

Unskilled, in-house personnel magnify failure risks for SME software projects

SMEs without project experts on staff, face a choice in their software project planning. Either they engage external consultants, or they require unskilled personnel to depart from their normal duties and try to plan the project.

In the writer’s experience, it is common to use unskilled, in-house personnel to plan SME software projects.

Using unskilled personnel to plan a software project magnifies each of the project failure risk categories described in the previous topic. It is not realistic to expect unskilled personnel to navigate those risks successfully.

Here’s how the use of unskilled personnel magnifies software project failure risks and creates a new set of risks:

  • In-house personnel are likely to be steeped in the current business culture, which includes assessments of how things are done. If software project failure risks are to be avoided, someone has to challenge the status quo and prevailing assumptions. It will be very difficult for a non-expert insider to do so effectively.
  • The use of unskilled personnel demonstrates a lack of understanding at management level of the risks of project failure and of the seriousness of the undertaking. It is likely there is insufficient management oversight of the project.
  • The project may be driven by a particular interest group within the organisation and exclude the interests of other genuine stakeholders. In-house personnel may not be able to confront this common problem.
  • The chosen personnel may not have the time to devote to the project, or their normal duties will suffer. Alternatively, the project may be taken up by an unskilled, overconfident enthusiast.
  • Project and requirements priorities may be based on positional power rather than business need. There may be no credible person to mediate between competing stakeholder claims.
  • It may be assumed that a solution must be based on a particular product or platform. More effective approaches may be overlooked.
  • The project may proceed prematurely to procurement. Eager to unload the project planning burdens, the organisation may engage a solution vendor, expecting that the vendor will understand their needs and provide the right solution. There are two serious problems here. Many vendors just want to install their product and get paid. In the absence of explicit procurement terms, it is very unlikely that their solution pricing includes adequate provision for real requirements work to overcome the limitations of the in-house work. Secondly, without proper evaluation, the selected vendor’s solution may not be suitable. The SME managers won’t know until it’s too late.

The consequences of using non-experts to plan a software project are:

  1. There is a high risk of project failure. The project will likely under-deliver on its expectations, or it may fail completely.
  2. It is highly improbable that maximum potential business benefits will be obtained from the project. Rather, there is a high risk of a large wasted investment.

The next topic examines this issue in more detail: Why do small and medium enterprises rely on unskilled personnel to plan software projects?

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.