Projects from Hell – The Ethics of IT Project Planning

David H. Gleason


This paper investigates the ethics related to Information Technology (IT) project planning. It argues that many IT project failures can be avoided through an informed, comprehensive and ethical planning methodology. It offers specific planning methods to anticipate and eliminate ethical problems. Interdisciplinary perspectives include philosophical ethics, information science and business case studies.

The paper first explores the ethical problems that arise when IT projects are poorly planned. Some industry statistics and a series of short case studies are then presented to provide concrete examples of the issues. A practical analysis of incomplete project planning methods demonstrates some of the reasons why projects go awry. Finally, the paper presents a methodology for project planning to avoid such problems. Note that project management also raises ethical issues, but those issues are outside the scope of this paper.

The paper begins by arguing that poor planning leads to wasted resources: Systems fail to meet expectations resulting in ethical disputes and legal battles. Effective planning can prevent these problems, but since the information industry is young, has unrecognized professional codes and limited professional certification, there exist few widely accepted IT project planning standards. In the absence of such standards, IT professionals must employ their own methods. Not using such methods, or using weak methods, demonstrates professional incompetence, an ethical lapse that leads to poor decisions, failure to serve stakeholders and ultimately to unusable or faulty IT applications.

Up to 75% of major software projects in the U.S. are either cancelled before completion, or are operating failures. As many as 85% of IT projects are delivered behind schedule. Project planning is often neglected or overlooked.

Case study summaries include the Denver Airport baggage handling software, a substance abuser case management system, a magazine subscription fulfillment system, and the NASA Space Shuttle software systems.

The paper provides a list of areas in which insufficient or ineffective planning can induce ethical problems. For example: Underestimating the amount of time a project will take not only costs money but can compromise organizational operation. This leads to questions of forthrightness, and whether the planners were competent and ethical in their initial approach. As another example: A poorly structured planning process will produce a system with design flaws. Such flaws can compromise sensitive data, produce inaccurate results, undermine quality control and cause accidents. In the worst cases, life or death decisions may be made based on erroneous information.

Analysis demonstrates several reasons why IT projects fail, including: failure to consider planning at all; faulty planning methodologies, or misapplied methodologies; lack of thoroughness; inattention to stakeholders and their needs; poor estimating; unfamiliar or changing technology; lack of required technical skills; poor communication and teamwork; ineffective time management; inattention to the ethical implications of projects or the resulting systems. An effective methodology for IT project planning has several components: stakeholder analysis, documentation of desired outcomes, establishment of an effective project team, work breakdown, estimating, contingency planning and planning for change management.

Stakeholder analysis must represent not only all affected parties, but the ethical effects the resulting system will have on them. Documentation of desired outcomes both imposes a discipline on the planning process, and provides a clear criteria to determine project completion. A project team must include the right people and also establish their working relationships. Work breakdown must be detailed and thorough. Projects should usually be divided into sequential phases, which break down into smaller and smaller tasks until realistic time estimates can be made. Estimating must be thorough and agreed to by all stakeholders. Contingency planning is needed to address areas of potential project failure. Finally there needs to be a process to manage project changes.

A five-phase planning methodology is presented which breaks IT projects down into 1) definition; 2) needs analysis; 3) design; 4) development and 5) implementation. A structured set of questions is provided to help raise the ethical issues that should be applied during project planning.