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Learning from Failure: 6 Common Pitfalls in Software Development

After a custom application development project wraps up, it's helpful for everyone involved to come together, talk about the project and find closure. This meeting is called the Retrospective, and it is critical for a team, so they can learn from their mistakes and improve. Often, retrospection is a celebration — software development is difficult, complex and a completed project is an accomplishment. You’ll high-five your team, talk about what made this project successful and modify your process so that you can repeat your successes next time.

But what happens when your custom application development project isn't successful?

We love to think about successful projects but the reality is that many software projects fail. In fact, according to a recent report, 14 percent of all software development projects are failures and they often fail for the same reasons. In fact, while software development tools and processes have evolved over the past several decades, the common reasons for project failures are pretty much the same in 2019 as they were 10 or 15 years ago.

Here's our list of the six most common reasons for software development project failure. If you've been involved in custom software development for any length of time, you've probably run into one or more of these issues.

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6 Reasons Custom Application Development Projects Fail

  1. Miscalculated Schedule
    Successful projects are delivered on-time and on-budget. This means the client, developers, project manager and executives all agreed on a date and the client agreed to an estimated price.

    Projects often end up delivered late, however. Sometimes the delivery date is artificially forced by someone not directly involved with the project or by someone that doesn't have a complete understanding of the work required. Sometimes the date is set before the project is fully defined and as extra requirements come in, the delivery date isn't modified to accommodate the added time required to fulfill those requirements.

  2. Miscalculated Cost
    Projects also often end up being more expensive than planned. Sometimes those expenses are related to the schedule. If a project gets behind, a common response is to add more developers to it. This may seem like it makes sense but adding more people can add to the cost faster than previously anticipated because those extra developers need to be brought up to speed. Other development projects go over budget because the complexity of the project was underestimated or the project requirements, scope or scale changed as the project evolved.

  3. Poor Documentation
    Successful projects have clear and concise articulated goals. Early on, the criteria and results describing what quality and success look like are well-defined and properly documented so the development team can execute the project correctly.

    If a project isn’t documented properly, that can be a problem. Poor requirements can lead to inaccurate designs and tests, which results in costly rework. Flaws that aren't discovered during development, or are discovered too late, end up as incorrect or unused features, causing challenges for users or requiring workarounds to be put in place.

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  1. Lack of User Involvement
    A successful custom application development project is quickly adopted by its target users. But some applications just sit there, unused by their intended users. Why is some software successful while other software is more or less ignored? It comes down to planning.

    Sometimes end users aren't involved in the planning process. Instead of asking potential users what they want and need, the software requirements are instead provided by stakeholders who are making assumptions about the end users.

    In other cases, software projects start with an actual user request but the work isn't reviewed by users during development to ensure that it's evolving to continually meet their needs. If the software grows away from what users want, they won’t use it.

  2. Poor Management and Tracking
    Successful projects don't just magically show up at the finish line. The project is monitored and guided throughout the development process. Effective project management and governance are critical to the success of a project but not every software development project has good leadership.

    Some teams don't include a project manager, or only have one part-time, watching things at a higher level. Sometimes other projects take temporary priority. Sometimes teams change tracking tools midway through a project, which can cause confusion.

    Other challenges include developers who don't check their work in, or don't communicate well with the project manager, which can cause an unclear picture of where the project stands. Without proper management, these can cause a potentially successful project to be a failure.

  3. Communication
    Successful projects are created by teams of people who are all up-to-date and moving in the same direction. In Agile methodology, every stakeholder must be clearly and proactively communicating with each other. That’s why so many project failures boil down to poor communication between different members of the team.

    Standardized processes and tools can help set the expectations and provide the means to communicate. Eventually; however, team members need to understand the importance of communication and take the personal initiative to do it.

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Learning from software development failure

Often, when projects fail, we want to sweep them under the rug and hope the next one goes better. But it's still helpful to have that wrap-up meeting, so you can:

  • talk about what went well
  • talk about what went wrong
  • talk about what you want to change the next time
  • encourage employees to thank and celebrate each other — pick up those who are feeling down
  • make a plan to prevent future projects from having the same fate

Learning from failure isn’t easy but it is important. When you make it a part of your culture to learn from your mistakes and improve your processes and tools, you’re laying the groundwork for a successful project next time.

Still need help understanding custom application development and project management? It may be time to call in an expert. Omni’s team of developers and project managers can help guide you through your next software development project.

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Eric Evans

About Author Eric Evans

Eric has spent his career leading large client-consultant teams, managing multi-year engagements, budgeting, estimating, and recruiting to the needs of his clients. Currently, he oversees day-to-day operations to support the growth and add to the bottom line of Omni. He has worked with multiple Fortune 500 clients with a focus towards bringing business value to all levels of the organization. In addition to being a dynamic leader, Eric has been a manager or people, an architect, a programmer, a project manager, a steel salesman and a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army.


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