Hitting targets? The state of UK IT project management

The Computer Weekly Project Management survey investigated how 1,500 IT project managers across the UK are running their IT...

The Computer Weekly Project Management survey investigated how 1,500 IT project managers across the UK are running their IT projects, their level of success and the reasons for failure

The effective management of IT projects is crucial to the UK economy. Half of all capital investment is in IT and, without sound planning and daily management, budgets overrun, deadlines slip and systems do not deliver a return on investment.

Failed IT projects frequently hit the headlines, but there has been relatively little in-depth research into the state of project management across the UK and how it could be improved.

Now, a ground-breaking report from the Computer Weekly Project/Programme Management Survey has lifted the lid on IT project management in the UK.

The survey, led by Chris Sauer and Christine Cuthbertson of Oxford University's Templeton College, and sponsored by change management consultancy the French Thornton Partnership, questioned 1,500 IT project managers across the UK in all industry sectors. Project managers for IT service providers and those working in-house for user organisation were surveyed.

The survey examined all aspects of IT project management, including the overall performance of UK projects, recommendations on how they can be run more effectively and the qualities needed to be a successful project manager.

The results presented a mixed verdict on IT project performance in the UK. Overall, it is better than previously thought, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The results

Just 16% of the 421 IT projects examined in the survey hit all their targets (budget, schedule and scope/functionality).

Only 55% of projects were completed on time. Forty one per cent were completed on or within the agreed budget.

Performance was also patchy on IT projects hitting overall goals, or scope. Here, 54% of projects failed to deliver on the planned-for functionality, 41% did deliver and an elite 5% achieved more functionality than planned. At first glance the figures do not seem particularly impressive, but they do show a marked improvement when compared to the performance of IT projects in the Standish Group's influential report on project management in 1995.

One improvement is the significant reduction in the proportion of abandoned IT projects. The US-based Standish report found that 31% of projects were abandoned - well above the 9% found by Computer Weekly's research.

Schedule, scope and budget

There has also been a reduction since the Standish report in the number of "challenged" projects - those that have missed one or more of their key targets (schedule, scope and budget).

Closer analysis of the data revealed that UK IT projects are missing their three main targets less dramatically. This shortfall from the target is known as variance. For the schedule target, for example, the mean variance is 23%. Or, if a project is planned to take 12 months, it will actually take about 15 months to complete.

Budgets are being overrun by 18% while delivering 93% of the original specifications for the project.

Chris Sauer, co-author of the Computer Weekly survey, said the drop in the number of abandoned projects almost certainly indicated that organisations are managing projects better and becoming more discriminating in their choice of project.

"On the traditional measures of schedule, scope and budget, the survey showed a record level of performance that belied the established poor public image of IT projects," said Sauer. "We are definitely improving but not everything has been put right."

"The survey showed that in the UK we are missing IT project targets by less than previously thought. We found that 55% of projects come within 5% of their schedule, 5% of scope and 4% of budget. This is pretty good, so it is quite inappropriate to treat projects like these as if there were no difference in their performance from those that miss their targets by 50% or more."

Despite the public sector's poor reputation for managing IT projects, there was little difference in the performance of projects compared with the private sector. IT projects in the private sector were more likely to finish behind schedule but less likely to go over budget.

Why projects can fail

A lack of management commitment was cited as the biggest risk to an IT project, followed by confusion over the objectives and a lack of commitment from end-users or clients.

Other factors that also increased the likelihood of failure included complexity (the extent a project has to link with other technology and business processes) and volatility within the organisation (such as changing targets for the project and how often the project manager changes).

"Increasing change means that project managers are having to continually improve just to achieve stable levels of performance," said Sauer.

An IT project's size also helps determine its success. Smaller projects were more likely to meet their targets than larger ones, the survey found. In the results, 55% of projects in organisations surveyed had budgets of less than £1m.

The Computer Weekly survey also gave a breakdown of the tasks done by project managers, this showed that 27% of their time was spent communicating with clients and other stakeholders, and 26% of time was spent planning, monitoring and controlling.

The equivalent of one day a week was spent dealing with unanticipated problems and dealing with disagreements, and another day was spent doing hands-on IT work, such as writing code and designing systems.

The perfect project manager

The typical IT project manager is a male graduate between 30 and 50 years old. Only 12% of project managers are female.

Despite the male domination of the profession, the survey found that female IT project managers performed better than their male counterparts. "This should encourage organisations to employ and develop more female project managers, which will help to correct the current imbalance in numbers," Sauer said.

The most common of the higher qualifications held by project managers are IT/computing science, science and engineering and business/management related (46%), compared to only 12% who have studied arts, social sciences or professional studies. A master's degree was held by 24%, and 45% have some form of professional qualification.

Project managers are also highly experienced, with an average of 17 years working in IT, where about 50% of this time has been spent in a project management role. On average, respondents had worked for their current employer for seven years.

But despite the wealth of experience and qualifications, one area of concern was the lack of in-house training. IT project managers often received little or no formal training from employers.

Project managers are dropped in the deep end without any formal training according to 66% of respondents, compared to 14% of firms that provided training in advance of the employee starting the job.

After the project manager starts in a new job the situation is only slightly better. Only 24% of those surveyed said they had received training from their employer.

Employers are even reluctant to give their project managers financial support towards the cost of learning outside work. Fifty per cent of respondents said they had received no financial support towards studying for a project management qualification.

When asked about what makes a successful project manager, commercial awareness was considered the most important attribute, followed by confidence, a willingness to take risks, understanding IT and integrity.

Much emphasis was placed on teamwork. More than 80% of project managers said they enjoyed working as part of a team and 74% said teams are better at analysing problems than individuals.

"The classic image of a project manager is of a driven, hard-nosed, decisive person," said Sauer. "But the IT project managers surveyed use a much more consultative and consensual approach to decision making. It is like being a conductor in an orchestra where everyone has to play a specialist role."

What are your experiences of IT project management? What led your IT projects to succeed or fail? E-mail Computer Weekly with your story:

Key recommendations for ITprojects       

IT project managers were asked for their recommendations in improving the performance of projects. 

Smaller projects are more manageable  One large project can be broken up into many smaller ones. Managers should also run fewer projects and prioritise the most important. 

Get senior management support  There were calls for greater support from senior management, better career development paths for project managers and better training.  "One concern raised was that if there are too many projects running at the same time, you can lose focus because you do not put the best people on the highest priority projects," said Sauer. "It can also make it harder to get the attention of senior management to provide resources and promote the projects." 

Don't be afraid to innovate  Another recommendation was for project managers to be given more freedom to be innovative in their job and not be afraid to take calculated risks.   "In a no-blame culture you can experiment," said Sauer. "In a blame culture you will refer every risk to a higher authority and this will delay the project." 

Be there at the beginning  Project managers also stressed the importance of being involved in drawing up plans in the early stages. This would help ensure projects are more realistic in their objectives and timeframe.

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