Mission: impossible. Stillborn projects

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

LEWIS CARROLL, Alice in Wonderland


The vast majority of failed software projects, which I saw, failed before their start. Mission was impossible initially, because no one asked and answered nine simple, but important questions, which define concept of future project. The fate of such projects is abysmal. After investment of significant financial resources to development of something, investor seeing that it cannot even be completed, always tries to invest more and more money in the hope, that project will start successfully eventually and profit will exceed costs. However, only after consideration of conceptual definition of project, investor understand, that project has no chance to be completed successfully. Therefore, in order to stop loosing money, he stops development of project.

Below, we try to represent our vision of conceptual principles of projects and justify their importance. For illustration, we use project of expedition from book of famous Edinburgh University graduate – Robert Louis Stevenson (“Treasure Island”).

Nine points of the project concept

1. What for?

It can sound trivial, but every project must have its goals. Goals can be different: from earning million pound till increase of popularity of company. But, project need to have its goals. Otherwise, project looks as ship, which sails to unknown wharf.  Goals are criteria, which help us to define, whether our project move in the right direction at each time point.

What is the aim of expedition of search for treasures of Captain Flint? – Make a fortune.

2. What?

This question’s answer must define, what we need to do in order to achieve our goals. Which product or service must be the result of project and which characteristics must it have.

What? – Equipment of the ship “Hispaniola”; recruitment the team; sail from Bristol to Treasure Island; find buried treasure; return.

3. Why?

This part of concept must answer the question, why we assumed, that after realization of project, we will achieve our goals. Any action plan must built, originating from some suggestions and assumptions, which we must clearly define and analyze reliability

Why? – Because heroes of book are sure, that treasure is exist; no one found it; value of treasure is extremely high; map of Billy Bones is correct; ship and team are reliable; storm is not expected from February to September.

4. Who?

Who are participants of our project. Participants of our project are all concerned parties, individuals and organizations (for instance: customers, sponsors, performing organization, which actively involved into project). Each of concerned parties has its own explicit and hidden motives, which can impact on success of project.

In this case concerned parties are all heroes of book of Robert Louis Stevenson. The main ones: Squire John Trelawney – sponsor of project; Doctor David Livesey – manager of project; Captain Alexander Smollet – team leader; Jim Hawkins – system architect; John Silver – non-formal team leader; old team of Captain J. Flint – outsourcers. It is important to point out that all motives of above mentioned stakeholders, had significant impact on project.

5. How much?

In order to understand the costs of realization of project, we need to define and assess resources, needed for its creation.

Project expenses are: chartering of the ship “Hispaniola”, the purchase of purveyance and equipment, payment of team

6. When?

Fred Brooks mentioned in his book “Mythical man-month” that “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.”. He also mentioned some formulas, which can be very efficient in assessment of project time [For example: empirical formula of cost-optimum schedule time for first shipment: . This formula is efficient especially in conceptual planning stage.

7. Possible issues?

First, we need to know, that “Running away from risk is a no-win proposition” (Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister – “Waltzing with Bears: Managing Risk on Software Projects“). First, we need to assess validity of assumptions. In other words, risks are possible problems in project and project problems are the materialized risks.

Main risks of software projects:

  • Absence (incomplete information, frequent changes) of requirements
  • Absence of real communication with customer
  • Absence of needed resources and experience
  • Incomplete planning
  • Mistakes in assessment of human and financial resources of your project

The book of Stevenson might not exist, if his heroes analyzed main risks and their management plan at the beginning stage of the project.

8. Criteria of success?

Goals must be measureable and at the beginning stage of the project we must know, how we will detect success of our project.

Heroes must know, how they measure success of expedition. The goal is to earn 1000, 10 000 or maybe 1 000 000 pounds?

9. Who have profit?

Achievement of project’s goals must justify resources, used for its realization.

The value of buried treasure must cover all expenses of expedition and must give enough profit for team


Conception can consist of one or hundred pages. But it must be. Concept of project is the document, which can help us to detect right way during all time of realization of our project and gives us clear understanding of whether we will achieve our goals or not. As a rule, absence of concept testifies that project is deadborn.