How to Prevent Your Software Development Project from Failing

Mallory Merrill


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Project management has its ups and downs, but generally speaking, companies that use some form of project management have significantly higher success rates than those that don’t.

Agile, in particular, has proven to be an effective methodology for accomplishing tasks and meeting goals. In fact, in the last year alone, 75% of highly agile organizations met their goals, 65% finished projects on time, and 67% finished within budget.

This is compared to organizations with low agility, where only 56% met their business goals, 40% finished projects on time, and 45% finished within budget.

But that doesn’t mean that every Agile project succeeds. According to PMI, for every $1 billion invested in project management, $122 million is wasted due to failure or underperformance.

Project failure can happen for a number of reasons, including:

  • Company philosophy or culture at odds with core agile values

  • Lack of experience with methodology

  • Lack of management support

  • Lack of team support for transition

  • Inconsistent practices and processes

But if you’re using Agile to meet goals and drive results, don’t despair. There are a few things you can do to make sure that your projects succeed.

Upper Management Should Cast Vision

One of the biggest influencing factors in whether or not a project succeeds is managerial support.

In one survey, 46% of organizations admitted to not fully understanding the value of project management, even though studies show that 67% of all Agile initiatives are championed by executives.

Moreover, 75% of business and IT executives believe that projects will fail before they’ve even begun. Surveys also show that that upper-level business leaders were either unaware of or did not understand Agile development and did not participate in about 60% of projects.

This means that even though leadership wants to implement project management strategies to achieve results and actively campaign for Agile projects, few are able to implement the necessary strategies and cast appropriate vision for success.

Because leadership participation is such a key factor in success, especially in Agile, they need to take time to understand the processes involved and to actively participate.


To do this, they should:

1. Believe in the process and cast vision. The most important factor for success is believing that your organization and your team members can achieve the desired results, and making sure your team has the same vision. As James Broughton says, “The only limits are, as always, those of vision.”

2. Take the necessary time to prepare and plan. It can take several months, if not years, to implement Agile development in any organization, and leadership needs to use this time to make sure everything is in order before jumping head first into any project. They should understand things like technical debt, testing, test automation, and other factors that may delay projects.

3. Don’t rely solely on tools to accomplish goals. Managers often invest thousands of dollars into Agile project management tools for analysis, design, and deployment, only to find that projects failed anyway. While tools will certainly help, keep in mind that for success, Agile methodology requires far more structural changes than simply adding new software; it requires change and continuous improvement from every department.

In order to see success at higher rates, it’s important that the entire management team is on board with the process before launching any project.

Everyone Should Know Their Roles

It’s also important for leadership and each member of the team to understand what role they play in the process.

If team members are taking on too much responsibility, not enough responsibility, or the wrong responsibilities, projects can fail or underperform. This is particularly true when it comes to leadership positions in the Agile process like Product Owner or Scrum Master.

The Product Owner is the key stakeholder in any project, meaning that they’re responsible for determining the overall direction of the project – what it will take to complete, what features the product will contain, and what priority each feature will be given.

Their primary job is the product backlog and casting vision. They should be the liaison between the team and upper management, but they shouldn’t be micromanaging the team’s process. That job is for the Scrum Master.

The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring that each team member is working within the scrum framework. They’re essentially the coach and guide – holding meetings, building products using Scrum best practices, and keeping everything on schedule.

While they work closely with the Product Owner, their job is significantly more hands on when it comes to product development, and they’re the primary advocate for the team when it comes to managing expectations and workloads.

The development team is responsible for all the technical tasks – running sprints, testing, and building the product from the ground floor.

Successful projects require proper participation from all parties, especially from the collaboration between Product Owner and Scrum Master.

For optimal chances of success, the Product Owner and Scrum Master should:

1. Maintain the backlog. While the backlog is essentially the Product Owner’s responsibility, the Scrum Master can help keep it in check. They can help keep each sprint running within capacity and on time according to the team’s workload.

2. Promote communication between teams and leadership. The Scrum Master works with the development team on a daily basis, so they understand the complications involved with creating a project. Their job is to catch the vision from the Product Owner and communicate it with team members, and communicate any setbacks or ideas back to the Product Owner, who can inform upper management if needed.

3. Encourage collaboration and help facilitate engagement. Both roles require some level of coaching and planning. As such, the Product Owner is responsible for facilitating engagement between every department of the organization to make the product launch successful. This means scheduling meetings, improving morale, and casting vision.

Likewise, the development team is responsible for running with that vision, maintaining their workload in order to meet deadlines, and communicating any challenges faced to the Scrum Master who can then send information back up the pipeline.

You may also have an additional Project Manager or team leader who will assign specific tasks and handle the “micromanaging” aspects of the technical team.

If the Product Owner or Scrum Master is unable to fulfill their role or take on too much responsibility for any one area of the project, failure is more likely. To reduce this risk, make sure each team member understands the importance of their roles and have the necessary resources to perform at their very best.

Product Roadmapping Is Essential

Aside from leadership roles, another key reason projects fail is due to inconsistent practices and poor planning. That’s why creating a product roadmap is absolutely essential for success – it provides context around the team's everyday work.

Roadmaps are generally built by the Product Owner and include large areas of functionality and when features will be available.

The goal of any roadmap is to create an easy-to-understand action plan for the vision cast by the Product Owner. Each member of the team should have their own copy of the roadmap so everyone is up to speed at all times.


A successful roadmap should:

1. Aim both internally and externally. You should actually have more than one roadmap: an internal one that speaks to any group involved in product development, like marketing, sales, and service. You should also have an external roadmap that speaks to existing and prospective customers.

2. Focus on the goals and benefits. The roadmap should be goal-oriented and focus on things like acquiring customers, engagement, and removing technical debt. Features should still be listed, but the primary job of the roadmap should be around goals and vision. Remember to keep your roadmap realistic in terms of goals, features, and timelines.

3. Be simple but measurable. When using goal-oriented roadmaps, your goals should be objectively measurable so that you will be able to tell whether or not you’ve achieved your goal. It’s important to select metrics that will help you determine success before you start.

Once you have a roadmap, you will want to frequently review and adjust it according to the shifting competitive landscape as well as your team’s needs. Rushing through a project or not sticking to deadlines can impede the process and result in project failure.


Final Thoughts

Project management isn’t always easy, and it’s important to understand that even if you do everything perfectly, your project may still fail for one reason or another. However, you can minimize failure by making sure that everyone involved is on the same page, starting with leadership.

Upper management should be fully informed about the Agile process before putting it into practice, and alongside the Product Owner, they should cast vision for the rest of the organization.

The Product Owner should collaborate with the Scrum Master to put that vision into practice and help team members work efficiently while minimizing things like technical debt. The Product Owner should help develop a measurable, goal-oriented product roadmap that ensures processes will achieve the desired end result.

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