IT Success and Failure — the Standish Group CHAOS Report Success Factors

The Standish Group have been famously (notoriously) publishing their CHAOS Report with IT project success/failure/challenged rates since 1994. “XXX% of all IT projects fail!” headlines are doubtless responsible for their fortuitous fame but they have also attempted to analyse ‘success factors’ over the years:

1994 1999 2001 2004 2010, 2012
1. User Involvement
2. Executive Management Support
3. Clear Statement Of Requirements
4. Proper Planning
5. Realistic Expectations
6. Smaller Project Milestones
7. Competent Staff
8. Ownership
9. Clear Vision And Objectives
10. Hard-Working, Focused Staff
1. User Involvement
2. Executive Management Support
3. Smaller Project Milestones
4. Competent Staff
5. Ownership
1. Executive Management Support
2. User Involvement
3. Competent Staff
4. Smaller Project Milestones
5. Clear Vision And Objectives
1. User Involvement
2. Executive Management Support
3. Smaller Project Milestones
4. Hard-Working, Focused Staff
5. Clear Vision And Objectives
1. Executive Support
2. User Involvement
3. Clear Business Objectives
4. Emotional Maturity
5. Optimizing Scope
6. Agile Process
7. Project Management Expertise
8. Skilled Resources
9. Execution
10. Tools & Infrastructure

Little changes at the top. Executive support & user involvement were noted in the 1970s as 2 main success/fail factors. ‘Agile Process’ is an evolution of ‘Smaller Project Milestones’ (the bit of agile that’s actually about process is “deliver working software frequently”, which is “smaller project milestones” in olde 1990s language). ‘Clear Vision and Objectives’ is re-branded as ‘Clear Business Objectives’

But note the varying evaluation of the importance of the people. At one level technical stuff will get done if and only if you have competent people actually doing it — it’s make or break. But so are all the factors above “Skilled resource” or “Competent staff”, albeit less obviously so.

Emotional Maturity is new. The cynic may note that the Standish group will sell you an Emotional Maturity Test Kit (the less cynical may say Standish are attempting to address a problem). Actually their analysis of emotional maturity is largely about character and behaviour which may be a sign that the English word ‘emotion’ has grown in what it means compared to 20 years ago. They include arrogance and fraudulence; I can see arrogance as a symptom of emotional immaturity, but fraudulence may mean “I’ve considered what counts as getting ahead in our society and it seems to me that taking the company for everything I can get before they take me for everything they can get is the way to go”. Fraudulence is wrong, but ain’t always emotional. I think “personal maturity” — or just maturity — is the idea they’re grasping at. It’s about having good people.

Scarcity of essential success factors

But the top factors are not prioritisable. I think they are all essential. Rating one above the other says more about relative scarcity than relative importance. When it’s really hard to get competent, skilled, hard-working staff then that will be your top success factor. As it is, good executive support is harder to come by than competent staff. Apparently.

I’d summarise as follows:

  • Good people
    • who know what they are trying to achieve
    • with good involvement & communication with who they’re achieving it for
    • when well-supported

will succeed, if success is possible.


More serious researchers point out all that is wrong with the Chaos report, most notably:

  • unlike published academic research, the data we’d need to evaluate the claims is kept private so we can’t verify their data or methods.
  • Their definition of success is very narrow and doesn’t mean success. It means “cost, time and content were accurately estimated up front”. Which isn’t at all the same as success except in areas which are so well understood that there really is nothing at all you can learn as you are doing it. That’s not so common in technology projects.

For an alternative and probably more balanced view of the ‘state of IT projects’ I’d look at Scott Ambler’s annnual surveys: http://www.ambysoft.com/surveys/

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5 Responses to IT Success and Failure — the Standish Group CHAOS Report Success Factors

  1. Chris van Voorst says:

    Thanks for sharing! I believe ‘Emotional Maturity’ is really talking about the need for Critical Thinking where one can remain objective during a discussion. I believe “arrogance and fraudulence” are tell-tale signs of egos and LOW emotional intelligence which needs to be curbed.
    Does the Chaos Report take in to consideration the changing work force? The baby boomers have different values then the Gen-Xer’s while the Millenials are now entering the work force with a much different take on what 9 to 5 looks like.

  2. Hi Chris, I’m not aware that the Chaos Report does — but then again I’ve never paid for a full copy so I’m probably wrong. I’m inclined to look again at their site now to dig into what they mean by emotional maturity!

  3. Scot Hanley says:

    I enjoyed the article. In my opinion the real news is that according to Standish, project success rates have only improved 10% in the past years on record (2002-2012), meaning that 60% are failures or “challenged” and equating to $50B in annual losses. Meanwhile, the project management industry is well rewarded for mediocre results. Currently estimated at $3.6B annually, and predicted to boom to$5.3B in 2017, the project management industry is rewarded in selling the same solutions that deliver these poor results. New methodologies and project management software don’t seem to making much of an impact. So what is the solution? “Project Behavioral Coaching” (TM) Read my thoughts here: http://exaltconsults.simdif.com/point_of_view.html

  4. Jeanette Wing says:

    Where can I get the standish figures for Successful, challenged and failed for 2013 ?

    • Hi Jeanette: I think you have to pay Standish $500 for the 2013 report. Although I notice that googling standish chaos report 2013 still brings up a pdf of it.

      Personally I’d stand by the view that nothing much changes. Success 30 years ago depended on the same set of factors as success today. And that the order of the lists reflect _not_ how important each essential is, but how scarce it currently is.

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