From time to time, The Standish Group publishes reports about their CHAOS research, which analyzes the factors that drive success and failure in large IT projects. The first CHAOS Report, published in 1994 and now freely available on the Standish Group's web site, has become famous in the software industry. The report identifies these failure factors:

  1. Lack of User Input
  2. Incomplete Requirements & Specifications
  3. Changing Requirements & Specifications
  4. Lack of Executive Support
  5. Technology Incompetence
  6. Lack of Resources
  7. Unrealistic Expectations
  8. Unclear Objectives
  9. Unrealistic Time Frames
  10. New Technology

I'm astounded that this list omits the single most important failure factor. I call this missing, crucial factor The Prime Project Failure Factor. So important is The Prime Project Failure Factor that if it isn't present in your project, you can prevent the project from failing even in the presence of all of the other failure factors.

Imagine this scenario. You have been asked to commit to a proposed project. You notice that you have been given unclear objectives, no user input, requirements that are incomplete and unstable, and unrealistic expectations and timeframes. You have no executive support and few resources. You do have some new technology to use, but the few people assigned to the team are technically incompetent to use even the old technology.

This horrifying proposal exhibits all of the Chaos report's top ten failure factors. The project is clearly doomed to failure, right? Well, no, not quite. No matter how many failure factors a potential project exhibits, you can still prevent failure by choosing not to do the project.

Seems simple enough, and yet I wonder. Think of a failed project in which you took part. Did you really not know at the outset that the project's objectives were unclear, or that you didn't have executive support, or that expectations were unrealistic? Did nobody know these things? And did nobody feel in their bones, right from the word go, that these factors doomed the project to failure?

Many "failed" projects fail from the start by ignoring The Prime Project Failure Factor: Choosing to proceed with a doomed project.