By: Richard Eaton

Summer 2019 Issue

"Technology is nothing. What's important is that you have a faith in people, that they're basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they'll do wonderful things with them.” - Steve Jobs

You've probably seen the ‘technology death spiral’ in action, especially for massive projects. Here’s how it typically plays out:

1. Senior staff decide that there’s a business problem that needs fixing and it has to involve an IT solution. So, they tell their middle ranking IT staff to ‘get on it.’

2. The IT people get to work quickly, usually without engaging the business side. Then they eventually roll out the results to the intended users, who complain that the IT solution doesn’t meet their needs.

3. The project grinds to a messy halt and business problems continue to accumulate.

4. Return to Step 1.

Does this sound familiar?

The unfortunate truth is that this story is far more familiar than you might think. And the consequences are expensive. By some estimates a typical systems project overruns its budget by 100%. Financial investment aside, the promise an organization offers to the world can be wasted too.

So, how can you avoid this all too common death spiral?

Through my own work and that of our firm, I have operated in this continuous improvement space for a couple of decades, supporting large IT projects. This includes, primarily, engaging staff at all levels to redesign business processes for subsequent automation. 

I was curious about how my own firm’s learnings might line up against the advice of industry thought leaders. So, I reviewed 20 articles on the subject of massive IT projects and what made them succeed or fail. The articles we examined were presented in high quality publications such as CIO, Harvard Business Review, and Forbes. I was happy to discover that quite a few of the themes we identified aligned strongly with our own beliefs. We also noticed that a couple of our own were not highlighted.

Here are some of the themes we selected, broadly divided into two categories: Why IT Projects Fail and Why IT Projects Succeed.

1) Why IT projects Fail

Cloudy Vision
Many organizations jump headfirst into the digital transformation pool without first articulating their strategy (vision, mission, goals and objectives), or aligning their staff and stakeholders accordingly. As a result, failure is almost inevitable on a variety of levels where understanding across the board is low, and ownership levels weak.

This is a job for the most senior leaders, of course, and one at which many fail to undertake on a consistently effective basis. One big, tricky issue? Many business leaders admitted that they lack confidence in their own ability, or the ability of their staff, to successful lead massive IT projects.

Blazer Failure
Like any other big, important initiative, many IT projects fail because too much emphasis is placed on being the trail blazers in the industry, or being the first to launch new ideas. Often, new ideas fail simply because they are too advanced, or too complicated, for the organization and its stakeholders to swallow.

Earrings on a Pig
Bill Gates said: ‘The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

Many organizations try to retrofit new systems and processes onto old, poorly functioning systems that do not reflect current business realities, and fail. Further, where IT solutions are rolled out before engaging customers, or people at the front line, trouble can follow.

Mistrust and Competency Issues
These two additional key themes, mainly related to the people dimension of IT project failure, were mentioned often. Miscommunication and distrust between the business and the IT sides of the project can create high levels of resistance, and may unintentionally damage key business relationships.

Also, projects don’t fail, people do. Many projects fail due to low levels of competency, and the lack of an action orientation, displayed by key people working on the project.

2) Why IT Projects Succeed

Lead from the Front, Together
The business needs to drive tech, and not the other way around. Successful projects start with a vision articulated by the highest-level leaders in the business who explain the project’s goals and anticipated improvements in a way that helps everyone be change ready. It is important to enforce and communicate the common purpose shared across the whole organization, highlighting the benefits for all employees as this will improve buy in. It’s also important that the technology strategy aligns with the overall business strategy and is presented and reinforced in a way that is inclusive of all teams.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
You cannot be successful on your own, or with an ivory tower-based ‘dream team’. It is important to engage with the people who live and breathe your business processes on a daily basis: your staff, suppliers and customers. Utilizing outside, objective expertise is just as important. Hiring culturally aligned experts who can facilitate a whole of business effort to accurately analyze the current situation, and frame out the future, is vital for success. By working closely with these types of consultants, organizations have the ability to reinforce their internal capacity to tackle similar projects in the future with limited outside support.

Three other themes emerged from our article review: 

Tailor Made
Invest in an approach that is designed for your specific organization and is tailored to your organizational strategy and culture. Increasingly, businesses are encountering IT service providers who promote a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Although this seems like a good idea at the time, in the complex and ever-changing world of the digital transformation of big businesses, this approach has failed to deliver the intended results time and again, on various levels. What might be even better? Do it yourself.

All Change
If you are good at leading change for other kinds of projects, you are more likely to be successful leading massive IT projects. As you might have guessed, massive IT projects can also mean massive culture shifts. Before you decide on new digital tools, focus on continuously improving your core business processes and supporting structures, and helping people adjust accordingly over time. The ‘Field of Dreams’ approach – build it and they will come – doesn’t work.

And Two Other Things
Here are a couple of important things that our firm has learned through past IT work, which didn’t emerge as strong themes in the articles we reviewed:

Thing 1: IT is Mainly about Direction and People
I have learned that IT usually starts off as a process project but, actually, is mainly focused on various aspects of direction and people. If you think back to the quote that opened this article, Steve Jobs seems to have had a good handle on this concept. This learning was reinforced when we looked at the above eight themes identified within the context of our Organizational Effectiveness methodology, which rests on the three pillars of Direction, Process and People.

When I organized the themes in this way, what I noticed was that:

1. Where massive IT projects fail, it’s mostly due to problems with setting direction, and the right kind of leadership to engage everyone effectively.

2. Where IT projects succeed, it tends to be because of their people and change leadership components.

Thing 2: If you don’t need IT, don’t do IT
Finally, don’t engage in a big IT transformation if you don’t need to. Enough said. 

Richard Eaton is a co-founder of Berlineaton a management consulting firm that specializes in continuous improvement, strategy & execution, and leader development.

When Richard isn’t climbing mountains or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors with his family, he works with visionary leaders and teams who are committed to delivering stronger futures for their organizations. To learn more, visit www.berlineaton.com