Avoiding the Cliff of Success: When to Back Out of Software Projects  

May 23, 2024

Imagine you’re in a car on a road trip. Everything starts off smoothly and you make good progress. But as you are driving, the four-lane highway becomes a two-lane, then a dusty gravel road, and finally little more than a dirt track that winds up a steep hill. Somewhere along the way you’ve made a wrong turn or two. Now, the car you’re driving isn’t really meant to be off-roading, and the engine light is on, and it is leaking fluid badly. To make it up the last steep slope, you put the pedal to the floor and careen over the last few bumps and the fallen branch of a tree. At the last minute you notice the road ends at a cliff, but you’re going too fast to stop now and your car, a smoking derelict, is launched out over the edge.  Sounds ridiculous, right? So why do we treat software projects this way?

software projects

Unfortunately, this is too often the approach businesses take toward their software solutions. Once the decision has been made to begin a software project, there is no turning back. No matter what, the project must continue, and it must be launched, released, published, or deployed. Imaginet has coined this the “cliff of success.” Did the solution get finished? Well, maybe. Did it get put into production? Sort of. Was it a terrible idea? Almost certainly. At Imaginet, we’ve helped many customers avoid, or pick up the pieces from driving over the cliff of success.  

Here’s some common-sense tactics to prevent this. To be clear, we’re not suggesting anything new here, but just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s not good advice, because it happens all too often.  

  1. Avoid the return-on-investment highway. It might seem like once you have committed time and money to a project the only thing you can do is continue; that you must get some return on that investment. Often this means no matter how poorly thought out the solution is, no matter how much worse your users’ experiences are going to be, and no matter how badly your release is going to go, you proceed. What often happens is your IT and Operations teams are left dealing with the fallout for months or even years until enough return on investment is achieved. This is the sunk cost fallacy, in which the investment of time and money prevents good decision-making, which could include cutting your losses and starting over. Look for the road signs that indicate when you have made a wrong turn.  
  1. Steer clear of the lack of governance path. You don’t have to look too hard for news articles that show clear examples of what happens to projects that have no governance or accountability. To avoid endless churn, colossal money waste, and solutions that don’t work, put in place the proper governance and project management structures to hold it all together. Ensure proper reporting of project status and budget. Equip your PMs with the escalation paths to decision makers who aren’t afraid to make difficult decisions about go or no-go. In other words, make sure your vehicle is fully safety inspected and the right driver is behind the wheel.  
  1. Watch out for roadside debris of false project status. Alright, so you think you got a safety, but who did the inspection? Will your shocks withstand going over the fallen log of the project status meeting? Do you allow your teams to be honest about failures? Or is every member of your team waiting for someone else to blink first and just reporting green status even though their module is falling apart and they’re hoping someone else blows up first? Do you have a problem of responsibility without authority? in which you have given people responsibility to carry out tasks and delegate work to others, but you have not provided the accompanying authority to enable them to ensure the work is done. Enable and reward willingness to step forward with issues and problems and don’t sweep them under the rug in the name of one of the previous two problems.  

Does this all sound obvious? Good! It should be. But these problems are still a plague to software projects. They’d never be tolerated in other sectors. Imagine if that was ok for engineering projects! So, if your software projects are headed for the cliff of success, contact Imaginet. We can help you!  

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