Understanding why tech projects fail (Pt. 1)

The Atom Team

Part 1: Communication

The information technology industry has witnessed an array of project failures over the years that have caused significant financial losses and derailed business strategies. Despite advancing methodologies and technologies, IT project failure remains common, affecting start-ups, small businesses, and even large government-backed initiatives universally. This phenomenon transcends countries and cultures, leaving industry experts questioning the root causes of such persistent inefficiencies.

In this podcast series we talk about why projects fail and introduce a funky new acronym: C-POP [Communication, People, Oversight, Planning], which guides us through the main reasons why we think that projects fail.

In this first episode we talk about Communication and why this is so fundamental to a project’s success.

A full transcript of the podcast can be found here:

Bhairav Patel:
[00:00:34 – 00:00:53]
Welcome, everybody, to the Atom CTO podcast. My name is Bhairav Patel. I’m the managing director of Atom CTO. And this week we are going to do something a little bit different. Normally, I’ll be interviewing a tech founder or a subject matter expert, but what I’ve decided to do right now is focus a little bit on some of the challenges that we see that our clients bring to us.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:00:54 – 00:01:34]
So, essentially, over the last six years, we’ve been providing you with podcasts from very, very interesting people, very knowledgeable people. But we’ve never really focused on some of the key issues that clients of Atom CTO face when they come to us and the work that we do. So I had the brilliant idea of putting together a series of podcasts that essentially describe some of the problems that our clients face and what we do in order to solve them, and also to look at why some of these problems occur in the first place. So the first topic I’m going to take is why projects fail. Now, this is something that I believe anyone who’s ever worked in it over the last 2025 years, or even longer since it existed, has seen.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:01:34 – 00:02:08]
And it’s something that we see all the time with startup founders and small business owners who are more, let’s say, nontechnical. And that is the age old issue of projects not delivering on time. Projects running over both on not necessarily time, but just cost as well. People not getting exactly what they want, and essentially a big misalignment in what people are expecting and what is actually being delivered to them. So what I’m going to do over the next five episodes, I think I’m going to come up with a set of issues that we see when it comes to projects and project delivery.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:02:08 – 00:02:34]
And in the very last podcast, we’ll explore some ways to mitigate the risk in project delivery and some of the solutions that we’ve put in on projects to help things move forward. So let’s have a bit of background. I started work in this industry back in 1999, and since then, I’ve seen a number of projects fail. This has been big news. You’ve seen big issues with government backed it, projects that have failed and cost billions.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:02:35 – 00:02:57]
And it’s a perennial problem. It’s something you see across countries, across cultures, in all different sectors and industries. And so why is that? What is the main reason for this? Well, I’ve boiled it down to a number of different reasons, and I’ve kind of conveniently put it together in a nice little acronym called CPOP, which stands for communication people, oversight and planning.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:02:57 – 00:03:28]
Now, I’ll give you a little bit of a spoiler. My theory on how and why projects fail tends to be all about people and essentially our own egos. I think we’re all part of the problem, whether it’s a business owner or a developer or a design agency or companies and consultancies who deliver projects. I think we’re all responsible in many ways for the failures that occur. But these failures are preventable, and they are things that we can mitigate those issues that will arise.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:03:29 – 00:03:59]
So what I want to do is firstly explore the first part of CPOP, which is communication. And I’ll start that with a story. So our very, very first client was a great client who came to me back in 2018 and said to me by Rev, I have three different proposals from three different agencies, and I don’t know what to do. The first one is 20,000, the last one is 120,000, and then there’s one for about 50,000 in the middle. Why is that?

Bhairav Patel:
[00:04:00 – 00:04:18]
So I sat him down and we had a conversation, and I said to him, have you created a specification? Have you done a kind of brief document that outlines your requirements? And he hadn’t. And I said to him, okay, so when you talk to the different design agencies or the different software development houses, what did you say? Did you write down what you said?

Bhairav Patel:
[00:04:18 – 00:04:54]
Did you get an email that reflects your conversation within that meeting? And again, the answer was no. So essentially what he had done was that he’d gone to three different companies, had three different conversations, and received three different quotes, which is what you would expect. But for him, this was inexplicable because in his head, he was conveying the same information to all of them. But actually, in these conversations, what you do is obviously try and poke out what are the future requirements, what kind of features do you want, what is nice to have, et cetera, et cetera.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:04:54 – 00:05:31]
And based on all of that, that’s how you put together a quote. Now, where I think the design agencies or the software development houses were wrong, were that they should have reflected back to the business owner what he had said, so that he could then go back and say, okay, yes, I said this, but actually it’s not a high priority. Or the thing that I kind of mentioned in passing is something that’s actually very important to me. So this is really where communication is something that we do all quite freely, but we’re not consistent with it. And we need to make sure that when we are talking to people who we are looking for services.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:05:31 – 00:05:56]
We are communicating with each of them in a very consistent manner. And there are product blueprints which you can find from us, atom. We will handily give them out to you. But it’s easy set of requirements and core requirements and what you actually want, which any business owner or founder can do. A second area of communication where there’s necessarily a lack of or a misunderstanding, is where people are not necessarily speaking the same language.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:05:56 – 00:06:20]
Now, this can happen at many different levels. I often hear founders, or founders come to us and say, oh, I don’t know anything about technology. It’s all gobbledygook to me. I don’t really understand any of it. And that’s where we come in to sit down with the business owner to help explain to them what technology is all about, what kinds of technologies they can use, what will be beneficial to their business, and why.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:06:20 – 00:07:02]
And here oftentimes, we find that business owners have some inkling of, let’s say, blockchain or AI. And this is no detriment to those, those types of founders. But I kind of feel that a little knowledge can sometimes be a bit too dangerous, because people will hear the buzzwords, hear the high level of what a certain technology can do, but really won’t understand what it means to implement it, or the costs of running it over time. So again, what we try to do is sit down and help them understand what are the pros and cons of technologies out there that can help them. But the flip side of that is also when we come across founders who are not able to explain their business in a very simple manner.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:07:02 – 00:07:29]
Now, this is something that we see a lot on pitch decks. So we get a number of pitch decks. We do invest in companies, but what we see in those pitch decks are that founders are essentially speaking in jargon. And this is not very helpful at all, because acronyms can mean different things in different industries. And oftentimes someone who’s in the tech side, listening to something may perceive something different than what is actually being meant by the founders.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:07:29 – 00:07:54]
So it’s very, very important that you, as a small business owner or a founder, are actually spending time with the counterparty that you’re working with to help them understand your business. What does it mean? What are the quirks? What is the context of the development that you’re asking them to do? And I think this is something that is very key because it kind of goes into another part of communication, which is conveying the why?

Bhairav Patel:
[00:07:54 – 00:08:17]
What are your objectives? Why are you actually doing this piece of work. And until the people on the other side can understand that, they won’t really be able to help you to find the best solution. Because there’s a number of different ways of attacking technology and a number of ways to get to the same ends. And again, depending on your budget, timescales, et cetera, et cetera, you can go in many, many different ways.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:08:18 – 00:08:58]
And it’s important then for the technology business that you’re working with to understand all of this, because if they don’t, they’re not able to then provide you with the exact information that you need. And again, this is where a massive misalignment happens. So when you don’t convey what is necessary for you as a business, you end up with solutions that don’t meet your needs. So a very good example of that is where we were working with a business that’s dealing with health and safety in the construction industry. Now, one of the things they wanted to do was make it as simple as possible to enable people on site to raise incident reports, et cetera, et cetera.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:08:58 – 00:10:01]
However, what they had conveyed really to their previous company who were working with them and resulting in the mismatch in expectations, was they wanted to digitise forms, but they weren’t actually saying that they really wanted to digitise forms for the purpose of enabling people on site to more quickly enter in information. Now this piece of information is very important because it goes to the heart of how you design and how you will construct those forms. So even small emissions in what you’re trying to say and convey to those tech companies can result in quite large discrepancies in what you’re thinking will be delivered and what is actually delivered. Now, on the flip side of that, for software development teams, one of the things I would always say to anyone who’s working in tech, or who is running a tech business that delivers software to other companies, is never hide the bad news. And a lot of times we see tech companies hiding bad news.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:10:01 – 00:10:35]
And what I mean by this is that we’ll go in to a situation where a client will have already engaged with a software development business who’s already providing them with software, and business owners will say to us, we asked them to do something six months ago and it still hasn’t been delivered. And we’ve seen even worse than this, where things haven’t been delivered for over a year and people are still paying. So that’s a whole different situation, which I will go to in a later podcast. But what we find here is that there’s always a delay. So the software development company will always say, oh, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:10:35 – 00:11:05]
And actually in the background, what will have been happening is that the company will have a roadblock. They will have either a team that’s too junior, who doesn’t understand the requirement and how to fulfil it, or they’ll have hit maybe some other kinds of problems internally with the team may not be a knowledge based one, it may be something that’s gone wrong. People have felt fallen ill or et cetera. And so what they’ve done then is they’ve just essentially said, oh no, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. Nothing obviously arrives, and the business owners gets frustrated.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:11:05 – 00:11:55]
And then again, once the frustration kicks in, this is where the relationships fall down, and this is where projects completely fall apart and fail. So one of the other ways of combating this, and again, this is combined with what I’ve just said, is that many business owners and tech companies do not communicate frequently enough. This is kind of a big thing when it comes to something like outsourcing or offshoring, where business owners will have sat down with the company, maybe gone through a discovery phase. Everyone’s happy with the initial document, and then there’s a big black hole of development that happens for six weeks and then nothing comes back and there’s no other information, and the business owner waits six weeks later for something to happen, for obviously for a demo to happen. But then what is shown is not what is really expected.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:11:55 – 00:13:01]
And this is where there’s really not very frequent communication. And so you need to have, whether it’s initially for the first few weeks, it’s a daily stand up for the business owner to actually provide insights and explanations as to what they mean by certain requirements, to weekly updates that show progress, and sprint retrospectives or even sprint demos that can actually show the progress that’s being made. So this is where businesses and many, many software development companies are like this, are not willing to try and put that little extra effort in to replicate and to inform the business owners and give them that sense of security and sense of satisfaction that the money that they’re paying for is actually something that is providing a useful tool that they can work with going forwards. And one of the other things I would always stress to software development houses is, again, by not communicating and by hiding bad news, you’re causing additional problems for the business owners, because every business owner will be able to change their plans based on what you can say to them. As early as possible.

Bhairav Patel:
[00:13:01 – 00:13:31]
So, for example, if there are issues with the delivery, and you can tell them three weeks in advance, they’ll be able to change their commerce plans. They’ll be able to change whatever launch events that they’ll be doing. However, if you’re telling them three days before it’s almost impossible to then change the plans, there’ll be money lost. There’ll be even more frustration and animosity created. So for me, one of the big breakdown, or one of the big causes of projects breaking down is this communication.

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