What does project failure mean?

Photo by Ben Geach Inevitably the government’s huge Universal Credit project has come under the spotlight again as a result of a government report classing it as “Amber/Red”:

Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.

Of course it’s in the spotlight. Its implementation costs run into the billions, and just to add to spice for the IT-literate crowd, it’s described as an Agile project.

But there’s a gap between “success” and outright “failure” as used in the headlines of the Guardian (for those interested in government spending) and Slashdot (for those interested in the tech). What is success and failure in this context, exactly?

The Major Projects Authority (MPA), who compiled the report, says Green means “Successful delivery of the project to time, cost and quality appears highly likely”. Missing from those three measures is “does what intended”, aka “scope”. But even if we interpret “quality” to mean that, those measures cannot be said to be equal. A project which delivers what’s intended but busts its expected time and cost can still be regarded as a great success if the result is sufficiently valuable. And a project which comes in magnificently within time and budget but delivers none of what’s intended can rightly be said to be a failure.

In between there are plenty of qualified successes and qualified failures, and in the end the vast majority of major projects will fall into that category. And anyone who categorises a project entirely as a failure purely because it ran over the original estimates has a very shallow understanding of that project, if not projects in general.

The major achievement of the MPA report is simply that’s been made public at all, as Francis Maude writes in the foreword:

Transparency is not easy. We are taking a big step by publishing this honest appraisal of our major projects. A tradition of Whitehall secrecy is being overturned. […] In the past, mistakes have been concealed in layers of bureaucracy, only surfacing when billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had already been wasted. […] This MPA report is nothing short of ground breaking. It’s taken us longer than we hoped to get here.

Now being grown-up about what we read is the next major step for all of us. The poster on Slashdot asked for even more:

where is the testing? […] why can’t we see what our money is paying for?

and today the truthful answer is sadly provided by Anonymous Coward:

You wouldn’t understand it.
You would exploit it.
You wouldn’t do anything to make it better.
You would waste time complaining about everything.