Each year, global organizations looking to transform themselves run into high project failure rates. Amid all the buzz around going digital, social, mobile, cloud hosting and analytics, the most basic problems of IT industry do not get discussed enough. Consequently, not enough time and resources are allocated towards their solution. As of January 2018, U.K. government was confident of delivering only 20% of its major IT projects, as reported in this BusinessInsider article.
It is worth mentioning that this does not include the effect of Brexit. Given that the total cost of these projects is to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds, it raises serious concerns about how much public money has already been down the drain to keep the destined-to-fail projects running. Computerworld has put together a list of UK’s worst public sector IT disasters. It reveals astonishing numbers about how heaps of public money is stuck or wasted in projects that have either overshot their time/cost estimates or are going to be shelved permanently. By very conservative estimates, less than 33% of IT projects are able to meet time and cost deadlines.
Though fingers have been pointed to a number of stakeholders (vendors, suppliers, programmers, business analysts, project managers, management and board members, etc.), the root cause can often be traced down to just one thing – poor planning and/or implementation on part of humans. Forbes mentions that about 54 percent of IT projects fail due to poor management and just 3 percent of failures can be attributed to technological challenges. To sum it up people need to realize this and stop blaming technological challenges for project failures, while the real problem lies with people!
Technology debates have been around for decades and will only get more intense in the years to come. There have been arguments for both sides – those in favor projecting it as the solution to all problems and those opposing it pointing to instances of technological failure causing loss of time and resources. One thing both parties would agree upon is – technology has entered our lives in more ways than we realize and there is no going back from here. In this article, our attempt is to side-step the good vs bad debate and dig deeper into whether we throw 100% commitment behind technology, before holding it responsible for failures. Are we using existing technology to its full potential instead of blaming it for problems that are actually caused by the people implementing it?
This study from the Project Management Institute (PMI) lists top causes of project failure. All the seven causes can be put down to one of the following reasons:
Not surprisingly, technology does not find a mention in top seven causes of project failure. We will examine these scenarios for the rest of the article but before that, we want to focus on the fact that Process and Communication failures also have a lot to do with people. Unless we dig deeper into the problem to find its root cause, we will never arrive at solutions. To facilitate this, we did extensive research and looked up top IT blogs and websites from around the world to find out the exact reasons why people are not able to implement technology well. Next time you initiate a project or monitor an ongoing one, you need to ask some hard questions about the skills and attitudes of the people involved. Let us put
people at the centre of our analysis and raise some fundamental questions to evaluate a project’s progress.
The basic question that does not asked enough and causes irreversible damage to IT implementation projects is this. Well begun is half done is an age old saying. IT projects begin much before the design and development phase. For all practical reasons, they begin when the project team is being assembled. This is one non-negotiable requirement that has stood the test of times. Whether you are still using waterfall models or you have moved with the times to Agile-Scrum/Kanban and other iterative methods, there is no escaping the fact that you need to have the perfect match of people with jobs. Incorrect problem definition, picking the wrong problem to solve, poorly defined scope, unclear requirements, unreasonable expectations, blurred leadership, are some of the prime reasons of project failure. As we would see in subsequent section, not having the right set of people while beginning a project can sabotage it in a number of ways.
This article from Forbes mentions that 25 percent of IT projects fail outright, 20 to 25 percent get completed but do not yield any return on investment and close to 50 percent need huge amount of re-work to make them useful. In this section we drill down further and see the ill-effects of not having the right set of people for driving different parts of IT projects.
Poor Communication – Project Management Institute study finds that poor communication is single handedly responsible for 56% of the total IT projects that fail. This number might sound astounding but a common-sense approach to project management would indicate that it is not really surprising. The below quote from PMI study further substantiates the importance of communication:
“High-performing organizations (those completing an average of 80 percent or more of projects on time, on budget and within goals) create formal communications plans for nearly twice as many projects as their lower performing counterparts (which complete fewer than 60 percent of projects on time, on budget, and within goals).”
Information Technology projects are often complex in nature. Experts from a variety of domains need to come together and exchange ideas to ensure smooth implementation and egos left outside.
Communication starts with listening to each other, clarifying misunderstandings, getting everyone on the same page and making sure all the stakeholders receive relevant communication throughout project duration.
“We are normally born with two ears and one mouth and using them in that proportion is best practice for us all” – Dee
Communication has to be customized per stakeholder needs and a one-size-fits-all approach is often found to be a recipe for failure. Role of business analysts is critical here, as they need to understand the
technology side of it as well as the business side – and convey information in a suitable manner to all involved.
This reason is common for IT project failures around the globe. If the customer does not put his finger down to what he exactly wants, no vendor or technology in the world can deliver it. Project outcome (commonly referred to as Success Criteria) needs to be specific and measurable. Business value has to be the focal point, ably supported by technologists, subject matter experts, implementers and other stakeholders. There is no point in spending a fortune on an IT overhaul of your customer service department, if your stated objective is “improved customer service”. This phrase is open to interpretation and a vendor can understand it in any of the following ways:
All of these are correct interpretations of customer’s objective. In many cases, achieving one of these goals can trigger another. However, people in charge at the planning stage have to spell out exact requirements, associated metrics and how are they going to measure success.
Technology projects are often perceived as IT department’s projects and stakeholders assume it is the IT guys who have to see them through. A tech project has a number of non-technical stakeholders such as sponsor, end user, IP experts, legal experts, etc. A strong leadership is required to bind all the people together and make them pull in the same direction. In today’s digital world, technology is not restricted to a tiny business enabler – it is a full-fledged unit on which all other enterprise functions (Marketing, Sales, Support, HR, Finance, etc.) are built. Stakeholder analysis often reveals that senior management is the most powerful influencer. Their lack of interest would result in lot of bottlenecks that would take ages to be resolved.
A milestone-based project plan goes a long way in monitoring project progress and establishing control measures. It encourages exchange of ideas more frequently and diversions are detected early. An iterative approach to development and testing and frequent workshops with customers to present progress of project builds a healthy culture and feedback is obtained more frequently. Testing and re-work costs are substantially reduced. In the absence of a time-bound plan, it is easy for people to get diverted and communication is adversely affected. There is no schedule to keep up to – an ideal scenario where backlogs keep building up. The entire team would be in a rush to finish the project in the final few days/weeks and that is when things can go horribly wrong as there would be no time to provide feedback and coordinate. Initial project plan should be used as a parameter, against which project progress should be regularly measured. At times, people commit the cardinal sin of not doing the hard work of digging into project related metrics and simply guesstimating a project progress number. This is a recipe for failure.
By nature, humans are resistant to change. Good project managers are skilled enough to see the big picture and overcome that resistance while driving a project. There are a number of tools that would help teams collaborate and communicate more easily and effectively. The problem is people do not want to change their outdated practices and learn newer, more efficient tools and processes. Agile and Test Driven Development are a couple of modern development philosophies that can reduce project failure rates and deliver superior customer experience. These are flexible, iterative approaches that can tackle the traditional problems of frequently changing customer requirements. Ironically, it is the Information Technology industry which sees managers reluctant to buy into these. Embracing change is the only way forward and it is about time the people in charge practice it.
Customers always want their projects to be delivered as fast as possible, with no defects and at the lowest cost and of the highest quality. Everyone knows these utopian requirements are next to impossible to achieve in a real world scenario. Despite this, people in charge of vendor’s sales team continue to promise the moon to their clients. Needless to say, they are in for a series of disappointments and at the end of the day you are left with an angry client. People need to invest time to fully understand a customer’s requirements, talk to domain and industry experts about feasibility of the project and understand the time it would take to deliver it at the desired quality. It is OK to be conservative and have a buffer of few weeks/months and deliver before time rather than over promising and under-delivering.
IT failure case studies are laden with examples where the wrong people were given wrong problems to solve at the wrong places. People negotiating projects and who are put in charge of them should first invest in their own teams and understand their strengths and weaknesses. Employees should be given sufficient time and opportunities to provide feedback. This will make them comfortable and get them focused on the job. Once they invest in people, decision makers such as project managers would be able to channelize the team members’ strengths and task them with jobs they enjoy doing the most. This fosters a healthy work environment, builds harmonious synergies, and positive work ethics.
“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.” Simon Sinek
Would you believe that even in this fast changing world, there are managers who still believe that formal trainings are a waste of time and resources? Trainings are indispensable and the yield multi fold benefits. Employees might not be able to see the benefits of adopting new tools but once they do a hands-on, they would have a first-hand experience of using it and would see the benefit for themselves. Once you have a skilled, happy team, provide them with the tools they need and task them with the jobs they are most likely to succeed in, you not only lay the foundation for the success of the ongoing project, but for many more projects that would come your way in the future.
If you are true to your craft you will have identified and are witness too, on several occasions human based decisions from outright bribery and various degrees of corruption to jobs for the boys. These in effect are the root cause which is never discussed at least in the open. When teams are formed, ego’s in
toe and contracts allocated based on factors that are inherent to humans since the start of humanity, in effect the project(s) are doomed to failure before its even begun.
The wrong humans for the job, is a massive issue worldwide that at its root leads to the inevitable position of failure. When people don’t earn their position, rather they are granted it, the best possible outcome is a plain old maybe in relation to expectations being reached. This obviously isn’t exclusive to the IT world saying that, however there is no denying this culture is clearly manifested in nearly every audit of failure, yet goes undiscussed, don’t believe me google it.
Next time you see a failed IT project, look directly at its team’s hierarchy and you will see that technology gets the bad rap while the wrong humans for the job lurk in the shadows of Linkedin boasting and ready for their next assignment.
Through this article, we hope we made our stand absolutely clear on the technology versus people debate. It is the people who make a technology look good or bad and not the other way around. Therefore, while analysing the causes of a project’s success or failure, do a performance analysis of the people involved and you will get to know the true picture. Next time you initiate a project or monitor an ongoing one, you need to ask some hard questions about the skills, attitudes and connections of the people involved.
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