Excessive pressure and unrealistic, often arbitrary, deadlines from IT senior management rank as the top reasons software projects fail, according to a recent survey.

To avoid making bad decisions, they must learn more about the software development process and get involved with project development reviews, US IT advisory firm Cutter Consortium concluded after surveying senior managers and their employees at 100 development organisations.

Just 39% of senior managers consider themselves "very knowledgeable" about software development, while just 28% of team managers give senior managers that rating. Too few senior managers understand the development process, like estimating project costs and creating realistic schedules, according to Cutter.

In fact, 35% of respondents named impossible deadlines, excessive project scope or a limited budget as the main reason for software project failures.

Lack of senior management involvement, especially at the right times, fuels unrealistic expectations the survey found. In 38% of responding companies, senior managers just occasionally involved themselves in projects, checking in only for major problems. And just 27% take part in project development which, according to Cutter senior consultant E.M. Bennatan, is a crucial point where problems can be proactively addressed to head off failures.

"The whole idea of project management review is creation of opportunity for senior managers to get involved," he said.

Best Practices
  • Educate senior management. Create (at minimum) a half-day software development course, to be held every quarter. Get buy-in from the business side by emphasizing costs of failed projects and by making software development education a corporate goal.
  • Communicate appropriately. Oversimplifying software development puts you in danger of giving an oversimplified solution. Understand your senior managers' learning and listening styles, and examine how much information is appropriate at each stage.
  • Create a project disaster plan. Every project should have an early warning system in place, and danger signs should be communicated to all appropriate participants. When a project goes off track, don't be afraid to stop the project, define minimum goals, rebuild the team and revise the plan.