Software development projects, after much investment, employee effort and passion, and time frequently fail to deliver planned outcomes and benefits! The consensus among academic and management gurus is that the failure rate of software development projects is in the 50%-80% range. Projects that fail, or only somewhat deliver on their financial and commercial objectives can adversely affect the corporate brand, productivity, and profitability.

The ability to objectively assess the health of a project becomes even more problematic as projects increase in scope, magnitude, and technical complexity.

Very often, those employees intimate with a project struggle, in a leadership role, in seeing the ‘forest-for-the-trees’ with their focus on the mountains of project minutiae. Thus, project managers may commonly lose perspective with an unbalanced investment of time and effort with tactical details versus a constant strategic focus on meeting customer-focused scope requirements and quickly identifying and resolving project cost and time problems and risks.

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It is a well-accepted business truism that the cost of fixing or repairing a technical obstacle or blockage is much higher than the price of preventing or avoiding the incidence beforehand.

The cost of a software bug significantly escalates during SDLC and release to the production environment, for example:

$100 – if found in the Requirements Gathering Phase.
$1,500 – if identified in the QA Testing Phase.
$10,000 – if uncovered in Production.

Impending business and technical problems can also go unnoticed because project managers historically operate with a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ mentality. The confidence that everything, within the project, will be copasetic if you stick to the plan is a false one, as effective project plans are organic that change as required to support risk mitigation and successful project delivery.

“46% of companies have come forward to accept that they do not understand the need or importance of project management.”

Best-in-Class organizations use Software Project Health Checks (PHC), as a strategic assessment tool, that quickly identifies a project’s current and projected progress against the approved baseline, at a chosen time. It recognizes what has been completed, as well as uncovering, where the project’s performance may be at risk for failure. 

Conducting periodic independent formalized health checks on projects has shown to be a beneficial tool to:

  • Ensure current project success by identifying and resolving project governance, infrastructure, and resource problems and risks. 
  • Incorporate ‘Lessons Learned’ as ‘Best Practices’ within the organizational project management/project management office (PMO) policies and processes to support future projects.
“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes… but no plans.”
Peter Drucker

Project Management Triangle 

The fundamental underpinning of well-managed projects is the use of a practical and user-friendly model to continually monitor and balance a project’s scope, cost and time. 

The Project Management Triangle also referred to as “triple constraints,” is a tool used by many project managers to continually analyze a project’s scope, cost (budget) time (schedule), during the project life cycle. Each of the triangle’s constraints is connected and moving one point of the triangle impacts and moves the other two points.

  • The project manager can balance the constraints required for successful project delivery.
  • The project’s scope and quality of work are constrained by cost and time.
  • Changes in one project constraint necessitate changes in others to compensate, or quality will suffer.

  • Scope Constraint: requirements of what must be done to produce the project’s deliverable. A major component of scope is the quality of the final product.
  • Cost Constraint: the budget approved for the project.
  • Time Constraint: the amount of time available to complete a project.

These constraints are often competing constraints. For example:

  • Increased scope may require equivalent increases in cost and time.
  • Cutting cost without adjusting time or scope may result in lower quality.

Also, it is common that in poorly-run projects, it is often difficult to effectively change cost, time, or scope without lessening quality.

“Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.”
W. Edwards Deming

Project Mangement Supporting Standards 

ISO standards and the Project Management Institute (PMI) PMBOK provide referenceable criteria and standards for the completion of successful projects. These materials are used by project managers together or individually and typically customized to organizational and project requirements.

ISO 21500:2013 – Project Management

ISO 21500:2013 provides guidance and high-level descriptions of concepts and processes considered important in project management and associated impact on project performance.

The key concepts in project management described in this standard include:

  • Project.
  • Project management.
  • Organizational strategy and projects.
  • Project environment.
  •  Project governance Projects and operations.
  • Stakeholders and project organization.
  • Competencies of the project life cycle.
  • Project constraints.
  • Relationship between project management concepts and processes.

ISO 10006:2017 – Quality Management

ISO 10006:2017 provides guidelines for the application of quality management in projects and addresses the concepts of both quality management in projects and quality management systems in projects.

Quality Management

Quality management in projects includes quality management systems in projects, management responsibility in projects, resource management in projects, product/service realization in projects, and measurement, analysis, and improvement in projects.

Quality Management Systems

Quality management systems in projects include project characteristics, quality management principles in projects, project quality management processes, and a quality plan for the project.

There are two aspects to the application of quality management in projects: the project processes managed within the project management system, and the quality of the project’s outputs in the form of products and services. Failure to meet either of these dual aspects can have significant effects on the project’s products and services, the project’s customer and other interested parties, and the project organization.

The ISO 10006:2017 standard is not a guide to project management itself as ISO 21500:2013 (outlined above) covers project management and related processes. 

PMI – PMBOK – Project Management Body of Knowledge

PMBOK Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, published by the Project Mangement Institute (PMI), is a fundamental resource for effective project management in any industry.

PMBOK recognizes five primary process groups and ten knowledge areas typical of most projects. The basic concepts apply to projects, programs, and operations.

The five primary PMBOK process groups are

The ten PMBOK knowledge areas are:

Processes overlap and interact throughout a project or phase. PMBOK processes describe:

  • Inputs (documents, plans, designs)
  • Tools and Techniques (mechanisms applied to data)
  • Outputs (documents, plans, designs)

Project Management Standards Link and Overlap

The PMBOK® Guide is a significant contributor to the creation of ISO 21500. ISO ISO 21500:2013 is linked to ISO 10006:2017 as it was previously the sole standard for project quality management until the release of ISO 21500.

“Organizations that use proven PM practices waste 28x less money than their counterparts.”

Standish Group 2015 Chaos Report

The Standish CHAOS Reports, since 1994 has surveyed the state of the global software development industry. Their 2015 report studied and reports on about 50,000 projects conducted of all sized projects and within all major industry sectors.

A vital report statistic group is the Modern Resolution for all Projects that presents the percentages of projects classified as Successful, Challenged, and Failed as shown below.

Technology-based Business Challenges

Today significant market shifts are driving organizations to reassess their ability to meet current and future competitive technology-based business challenges. These disruptions are creating opportunities for executives to leverage and exploit customer-focused enterprise technology assets to support more innovative products and services and increased employee productivity.

Key technology-based business challenges drivers include:

  • Emerging technologies.
  • Digital transformation and advancement.
  • Business purchase behaviors.
  • High customer demands.
  • Employee skills and experiences.
  • Disruptive organizations.
 “Any idiot can point out a problem … A leader is willing to do something about it! Leaders solve problems!” 
Tony Robbins

PMI Pulse of the Profession Survey

Within the PMI Pulse of the Profession (9th Global Project Management Survey 2017) PMI identifies two classes of project users:


Organizations with 80 % + of projects completed on time, on budget, meeting original goals and business intent, and having high benefits realization maturity.


Organizations with 60 % or fewer projects completed on time, on budget, meeting original goals and business intent, and having low benefits realization maturity.

Critical survey finds of Champions and Under Performers are shown in the below graphic.

Red Zone Project Symptoms

A failing project will typically exhibit many symptoms that are generally visible to experienced executives, professionals, and project managers. Indicators of projects heading into the red risk zone focus on people, process, or technology.

A list of typical Red Zone project symptoms covers the below conditions. 

Governance & Project Control

  • No supporting business case.
  • Nonexistent project charter supporting the business case.
  • Lack of project success criteria.
  • Insufficient financial budget.
  • Absence of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
  • Lack of proactive executive buy-in.
  • Poor decisions on project problems and risk resolution.
  • Communications breakdown.
  • Conflict in culture.

Project Planning

  • Under-detailed specifications: functional and non-functional.
  • Inadequate project scoping.
  • Unsuitable technical approach, environemnt, and design.
  • Incorrect software development estimation.
  • Incomplete & deficient project documentation.
  • No structured methodology and processes.

PM / PMO Policy & Processes

  • No Project Management Office (PMO).
  • Inadequately staffed PMO without the appropriate authority.
  • Ignore or dilute PM / PMO policy and processes.
  • Lack of daily project plan updates.
  • Poor project life cycle KPI monitoring and evaluation.
  • No timely business case updates.
  • Absence of formal project status reports.
  • Nonexistence change management control and process.
  • Breakdown in communication: pulling the project team in multiple directions.

Resources Management

  • Inappropriate project management skills to lead the project to a successful conclusion.
  • Lack of formal resource management selection criteria and process.
  • No formal practice to confer project responsibilities and goals to project manager and team members.
  • Lack of essential business and technical resources.
  • Lack of project manager and team members training and knowledge-sharing.
  • High project resources turnover.

Project Schedule / Timeframes

  • No schedule milestone deliverables and due dates.
  • Excessive tasks are unassigned as TBD.
  • Slippage without association with underlining problem or risk registers with change plans.
  • Continual scope creeps without documented analysis and executive approval.
  • Failure to complete delierables on schedule.

Software Development

  • Inappropriate technical approach.
  • Use of sophisticated technology without appropriate experienced technical resources.
  • Incomplete testing plan and scripts.
  • No due diligence conducted on technology suppliers/vendors.
  • Nonexistent or incomplete formal user acceptance test (UAT) exercises.
“Higher-performing projects are significantly more likely to be staffed with certified project managers. In fact, 80% of projects classified as high-performing use a certified project manager.”

Project Definition of Success

A successful project is one that is assessed by its owners and users as having delivered the expected benefits or more, and where none of the respondents report significant or substantial problems on the other success dimensions of time control, budget control, quality, and delivered functionality.

Successful projects generally prepare a ‘Definition of Success’ in the planning stage. This vital project tool identifies the measurable terms of what should be positive project outcomes and acceptable to all the project stakeholders. 

The three key factors that can define project success include: 

  • The Project Management Triangle (Cost + Scope + Time)
  • Realized Benefits
  • Stakeholder satisfaction.

Examples of project success factors include projects that:

  • Complete on time.
  • Complete within the approved budget.
  • Complete to agreed scope and approach.
  • Meet agreed on technical requirements.
  • Meet agreed business requirements.
  • Quickly identify and resolve problems and risks.
  • Comply with PM / PMO policies and processes.
  • Provide required level of project quality.
  • Provide high-level project reporting and timely communications.
  • Solicit feedback on project plan progress and improvement opportunities.
  • Accept by customer-owner/stakeholders within a formal User Acceptance Test (UAT). 
“58% of organizations report more defined processes and practices as their key step to project success.”

PM / PMO Lessons Learned

Project Management Institute (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) describes Lessons Learned as the knowledge and insights obtained from the process of performing project activities.

Project lessons Learned types include:

  • Performance Lessons consists of the practices and activities used to plan, manage, and execute approved projects.
  • Results Lessons that consist of the project itself and the work effort performed to produce planned results.

Lessons Learned include identification activities focus on assessing the following project elements.

  • People: Project resource staffing and training comprising loading, availability, skill mix, and training including, available, required, provided, and needed.
  • Process: Project process and the standard organizational process, covering supporting policies, processes, procedures, standards, methodologies, templates, and guidelines.
  • Tools/Technology:  tools and equipment, focusing on statistical analysis/reporting tools, version control systems, simulators, databases, hardware.

Identification and documentation of project Lessons Learned is a critical governance and control activity that occurs during:

  • Project life cycle.
  • Project Health Checks.
  • Close-out.

The timely application of identified Lessons Learned to PMO and future projects, practices, and related services is essential to continual project management improvement with constant enrichment of the organization’s institutional body of knowledge.

The objectives of documenting identifying Lessons Learned derived from actual project experience includes:

  • Encourage continual repetition of desirable (effective and efficient) project outcomes.
  • Prevent recurrence of future undesirable project outcomes.
“Organizations will place more emphasis on soft skills, 51% of them reporting that soft skills are gaining more importance today.”

Project Health Checks: What, Why & How

The Project Health Checks (PHC) practice is used to determine whether project plans are well-governed, on scope and budget, and there is a record of quick discovery and resolution of inherent problems and risks.

A PHC provides an independent assessment, at any point in time during the project life cycle, of how well the project proactively adheres to the approved project plan within the organization’s project management best practices.

The PHC is a proactive and reflective learning exercise, a snapshot of the status of a project to support project governance policies and plans.

Unhealthy projects generally emit clear warning signs grouped into five key categories.

  • Project Governance & Control
  • Compliance
  • Business Case Validation 
  • Problems & Risks
  • The Human Factor

A formal and PHC quickly provides access to immediate findings that can be used by the project manager during planning and project SDLC execution. It offers opportunities to expand on what is going well, and make changes where necessary, increasing the likelihood of success due to earlier detection and resolution of problems and risks and project optimization prospects.

Project Health Checks: Components

The typical components of Project Health Check encompass:

    Project Health Checks: Metrics 

    Return on Investment (ROI), Cost/Benefit Analysis (CBA), and Earned Value Management (EVM) are all measures that the project manager can use to quantify the project’s health to executives and project stakeholders.

    Return on Investment (ROI)

    Return on Investment (ROI) is a tool to help organizations decide whether or not to do a project and after a project to confirm the realization of the projected financial objectives. ROI compares the potential benefits of the project to the expected Investment in the project (i.e., cost of the project). In its purest form, ROI equals the difference between benefits and costs divided by costs: ROI = (Benefits – Costs) / Costs.

    Cost/Benefit Analysis (CBA)

    Cost/Benefit Analysis (CBA) used to help organizations justify a project, and is another type of relationship between costs and benefits. Instead of representing the relationship as a percentage, CBA uses the benefit-cost ratio: BCR = Benefits/Costs.

    Earned Value Management (EVM)

    Earned Value Management (EVM) helps project managers to monitor and measure project performance. It is a systematic project management tool used to identify variances in projects based on the comparison of worked performed and work planned.

    EVM consists of primary and derived data points.

    Primary Data Points

    • Budget at Completion (BAC)
    • Budgeted Cost for Work Scheduled (BCWS) / Planned Value (PV)
    • Actual Cost of Work Performed (ACWP) / Actual Cost (AC)

    Derived Data Points

    • Cost Forecasting: Estimate at Completion (EAC), Estimate to Complete (ETC)
    • Variances: Cost and Schedule
    • Performance Indices: Cost and Schedule
    Project Health Indicators 

    The results of the above measures provide focused project health indicators. These indicators identify if the project is currently operating over or under budget, and ahead of or behind schedule. They also demonstrate how severely the project is exceeding or missing expectations.

    The critical project reporting data points include:

    • Cost Variance 
    • Schedule Variance 
    • Cost Performance Index
    • Schedule Performance Variance 

    Project Health Checks: Benefits

    The benefits generally realized with the use of a formalized PHC correlates directly to traditional project success factors of on-time delivery, within budget, and deliverable outcomes that meet approved business and technical requirements.

    PHCs support the achievement of benefits that encompass:

    • Uncover and resolve current or possible future project problems and risks.
    • Detect subtle and tacit symptoms which, if missed, could evolve into downstream project problems and risks
    • Ensure adherence to PM / PMO policies and processes to established practices and procedures to safeguard the quality of the final deliverables.
    • Confirm that the rationale for the project is still relevant and clearly understood by the project team owner or sponsor, project manager, and team members.
    • Improve project management, knowledge, and skills.
    • Generate Project Clean Health Statement or Project Repair and Change Plan Statement.
    • Identify and document PM and PMO ‘Lessons Learned’ to improve future project management and, processing.
    “Understanding variation is the key to success in quality and business.”
    W. Edwards Deming

    The Way Forward

    Knowledge Compass consultants successfully help clients plan, develop, and set-up project management and Project Mangement Office (PMO) strategies, policies, and processes. These services include the design, training, and assistance in conducting Project Health Checks.

    Knowledge Compass provides consulting services with the use of an array of Frameworks, Analyses Tools, and Interactions from their Best Practices Consultant Toolbox.