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4/11/2013
10:47 AM
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5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures

Empower more engineers and data scientists, hold vendors more accountable and just say no to cheese.

My debut column for InformationWeek exposed some big, hairy reasons IT projects fail. It should comfort you to know that I don't pretend to have all the answers, or at least I won't until I'm trying to sell you something. So instead of answers, let's focus on the direction in which we need to walk to get to that shining goal on the horizon -- not the "city upon the hill" that Reagan and JFK spoke about, but the nondescript office park at its center.

1. Stay clear of cheese. Don't get me wrong. I love the smell of cheese. My favorite is a seasonal offering from Vermont that contains horseradish. But one smell I can't stand is the ingratiating stench of management consultants who prey on the vanities of the elderly by saying things like "IT project success demands that you get support from senior management."

If you're in that kind of company, then you're already a lost cause. And not just because you hire a fleet of consultants to sell you cheese and another fleet to tell you who moved it.

You're lost because in most organizations "senior management" is code for those random few whose gut-based decisions have been right in the past. Careers advanced by lottery. Because if anything deserves the warning that "past performance does not predict future returns," it's senior management, not mutual funds.

The older I get, the more I wish that there were some folksy home remedy for it, like rubbing oatmeal on your elbow. But for those of us genuinely interested in transforming our orgs, step one is to change the talent that drives it.

And I do not mean that it's time to "upgrade your talent" -- a very cheesy senior management way of thinking. Rather, it's time to rethink the values that define leadership, to rethink who deserves the corner office or whether there should even be a corner office.

It's time to focus on real values -- not the generic, client-centric drivel that C-level execs feel compelled to publish. "We put clients first!" Really? And what about your competitors? I suppose their clients come third or fourth.

Here's what I mean by real values. We need to reward humility and selfless service and call out shameless self-promotion. We need to reward the brave instead of those with bravado. And in IT especially, it's time to value engineers and engineering experience over softer skills.

I'll be honest. Some of the best engineers I know have the social skills of pro wrestlers. God gives and takes. But if you lock 10 engineers into a conference room, they don't need someone with softer skills to facilitate their discussions. The conference room doesn't turn into that nameless island in "Lord of the Flies." No. Shit gets done.

I keep a copy of that 1978 Microsoft group photo on my desk. I was 10 at the time, so I'm not in it. It just keeps me humble. None of them is wearing a Six Sigma green belt. If they're wearing any belt at all, it's to hold their +5 sword of engineering.

They're my heroes, the bearded ones, the early and unknowing pioneers of ironic mustaches. And until your IT shop starts to fill with them -- or people who admire them -- your transformation will remain hollow.

2. Work on your cardio. When I was a 15-year-old nerdling, I surreptitiously decided that I wanted to be a weightlifter -- a superhero actually -- but I'd start by lifting weights. I shadowed a muscle-bound stranger at the gym, following him from machine to machine, doing as many reps as he did. I was pretty proud of myself until I passed out -- literally. The experience saved me the cost of a cape.

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I see the challenge of getting ROI right in the same light. We all need to create a data-driven culture (organizational muscles), but the only thing vendors sell are magical BI tools (a gym). Their sales pitches are predictable: They point to edge cases where some muscleheads (data scientists) do something amazing with their tool. "These dashboards actually cure cancer! Cancer!"

But when you ask the vendor for a training regimen (an internal competency), they instead teach you how to use the equipment. The result is a very expensive, vacant gym. And an org with the lung capacity of the Marlboro man.

If you take what you think is the clever path, you hire yourself a couple of weightlifters to lead the way: muscle-bound strangers who know-but-can't-teach or lift-but-can't-lead. And they ultimately inspire your nerdlings to pass out.

If you're lucky, you get a coach that understands the complexities of data science and totally gets your business context. But then you wake up, having had a business leader's equivalent of a flying dream. Beautiful, wasn't it? Business transformation by Xanax.

The more practical path is to recognize that data science needs to be a core competency in every nook and cranny of your organization. If the term "data scientist" is something you relegate to your BI team, you're wasting their time and your money. If you remember only one thing from this column, know that creating and consuming actionable information requires the same skills. In financial services, for instance, there's little point to having quants on the front lines if the leadership lacks the same competencies.

And the skill doesn't just need to travel up the management chain or be focused in your profit centers. Supporting functions from marketing to vendor management need to challenge themselves to let the data drive. Even bastions of unstructured data such as legal and compliance -- places where the word "opinion" regularly gets recast to mean "fact" -- have to rethink their approach.

Before you drink the Kool-Aid, though, recognize that letting data drive decisions will disrupt your organization. Big time. If for no other reason than the challenge it poses to the established authorities in your org: your senior management (see section 1).

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JimC
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JimC,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/28/2013 | 11:24:34 AM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
"...the ingratiating stench of management consultants who prey on the vanities of the elderly..."
What a fascinating choice of words. As someone fortunate to have sold software for various ISVs whose products were consistently in Gartner's Magic Quadrant, I was sickened by that stench when non-technical, saccharin-sweet actors and actresses preyed upon the vanities of senior IT management, resulting in uninformed, purely emotional purchasing decisions by egomaniacs drawn to low-bidders. Luckily, my sales battles lost that way were few and far between. Not that it put money in my pocket, but there's a certain satisfaction in learning that the most dishonest, cowardly and blatantly stupid client from my past was subsequently fired, then couldn't find a similar job on the east coast or even in the same time zone. I hear it gets cold in the Midwest near the Canadian border.
PatMorrell
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PatMorrell,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2013 | 1:22:48 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
The ghost of George Carlin... THAT's who I want to grab a beer with on a Friday night. Love it. Really enjoy your stuff. Keep it coming.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
4/25/2013 | 1:10:22 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
The original line from the piece was "5) Fire your vendors. They arenG«÷t doing you any favors." I was fine with my editor's suggestion to tone it down because he helps me sound less like a deranged sailor with Tourette's. We also removed the final paragraph from the section: "And be happy that IG«÷m not telling you how I really feel. Because IG«÷m pretty sure that IG«÷d make the ghost of George Carlin blush."
PatMorrell
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PatMorrell,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2013 | 12:26:59 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
This is really, really spot-on. Draws an important -- and too often unrecognized -- distinction between "cool innovative technology" (i.e. the "gym", a static product) and "innovation by way of technology" (i.e. strategically employing technology to grow revenue and gain efficiencies, a dynamic process/service). #5 is blunt and a tough pill for some to swallow, but I don't believe it is too extreme. Companies should fire any "vendor" that pushes staid/siloed products as opposed to custom business solutions powered by innovative tech; we're at a point where no one should feel that his/her only option is buy software off-the-shelf.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
4/24/2013 | 1:39:16 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
I'm seeing more attempts by companies to spur that energy you describe of the front-line rank-and-file in a room solving problems, but drawing on a mix of disciplines rather than handing it all to the engineers. So, when John Deere was trying to bring wireless remote diagnostic capabilities into its tractors, it put product engineering, IT and product marketing people in the same space -- at some stages with their desks right beside a tractor they're working on. When Walgreens wanted to up its mobile development game, it likewise located developers, product experts, marketers and finance people in the same area.
frowland124
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frowland124,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/23/2013 | 2:18:26 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
Nice article, Coverlet

I also miss the days when "people" managers avoided technical and strategy meetings like the plague. Only the bravest, smartest and most motivated executives dared to enter the engineer's den. Winning the troops' respect was the path to corporate success and could pay big dividends for everyone.

Of course, that was back when it was all about letting people work, sometimes taking a few risks, healthy debate over options and generally getting things done. Now, PR, KPI spreadsheet metric voodoo, appearances and profitable back-scratching before the next buyout seem highest on the C-level's priority list. Bearded techies and engineers need to be "managed" or if possible out-sourced or replaced.

This attitude persists because the people asked to manage techies rarely have either real management or technical skills. An MBA is nice, but it won't always enable you to revolutionize a complex process or successfully move an industry's technology into the future. These tasks just aren't done in board meetings. You also need teams of passionate, hard-working individuals who love what they do and have a low tolerance for political BS. They may not have the answer right this second, but leave them alone and they will figure it out.

Unfortunately, this profile is not ideal if you must trample others to move up the ladder. Hence, beards tend not to gravitate towards management, but, I sure do wish more of them would.

Back when I worked at DEC, this was called "too many chiefs and not enough indians" (no pun intended). The problem was not new, but at least it was easily identified as dysfunctional. It was not accepted as the status quo or something to aspire to. Now it just looks like the new normal.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
4/22/2013 | 9:12:43 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
Appreciate the kind words Jerry. And the thoughtful counterpoint. Love a comment that brings context and history!

Completely agree on the need for vision. But I struggle with how corporate America frames vision as the domain of the credentialed business leader. More often than not, visionaries are pulled from non-technical disciplines/backgrounds, selling short the visionary capacity of the engineering rank and file. It's a variation of the old question: do you hire from the outside or promote from within. In this case, the inside and outside that IG«÷m concerned with is the engineering community.

As for my more controversial statements, theyG«÷re mostly a reflection of my frustration; specifically at how far the pendulum has swung in corporate America.

My read of history is that moderate calls for balance always seem to trigger muted responses.

Someone has to play MalcolmG«÷s role to validate MartinG«÷s.
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
4/22/2013 | 7:37:44 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
Very well put Jerry! Sure, new ways of doing things are great and can make businesses more effecient. However, trying to restructure your business to do EVERYTHING the "new and popular" way is a surefire way to destroy a business. Skill and intelligence alone do not create a successful business, as Jerry explained above. If that were the case, we'd have a lot more successful businesses. For most successful business/tech leaders, there is no "luck" involved. There are intelligent people who sieze opportunities and have that vary rare combination of technical knowlege and business sense. There are some good business leaders and some good engineers, but rare indeed are the individuals who are both.
JerryJ
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JerryJ,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2013 | 6:58:43 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
Written with the usual fervor, eloquence and controversial statements; I agree with some, but not all. Yes, having an empowered and enthusiastic team of engineers is a key ingredient to success. But I ask, how do they become empowered? How do they get enthusiastic? And most importantly, how do they get empower and enthusiastic about a project that will eventually lead to profits for those who sign the front of the checks?

You wrote, G«£Dress up an engineer and stick him in the room with the executives and you get an Intel or a Microsoft in their early days. You get Silicon Valley, or at least the parts of it that haven't succumbed to the marketers and venture capitalists.G«• LetG«÷s examine one of those G«Ű Intel.

Intel was founded by Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, two of the G«£traitorous eightG«• who left Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to form Fairchild Semiconductor, then left Fairchild to form Intel. Their ultimate success at Intel was, I believe, formed out of the lessons learned from the failings of their previous employersG«™and of their own. First Shockley. Shockley was a Nobel Laureate in Physics and an experienced researcher and teacher, but G«£A disastrously bad businessman and a worse managerG«• according to industry historians. The hostile work environment he created and lack of leadership hardly empower and inspired a team of brilliant physicists and engineers.

And then there was Noyce himself. It is well known that Noyce failed to credit fellow engineers for their contributions, which eventually led to half of the traitorous eight leaving Fairchild for Teledyne in 1961. NoyceG«÷s engineering and operations management skills helped lead Fairchild to become the semiconductor market leader in the first half of the 1960G«÷s, but his personality G«Ű those G«£soft skillsG«• you mention G«Ű led to discord with and loss of the core technical and managerial leadership of Fairchild, and eventually their loss of market leadership to Texas Instruments.

When Moore and Noyce left Fairchild to form Intel along with Arthur Rock (one of those nasty Silicon Valley venture capitalists), they immediately hired Andy Grove (Intel employee #3). Industry historians credit IntelG«÷s success is to G«£the executive leadership and vision of Andrew GroveG«• G«Ű not to a team of engineers holed up in a conference room.

So whatG«÷s my point in all this? Success comes from equal parts inspiration and perspiration. I truly believe that engineers, pointed in the right direction and properly motivated will G«£perspireG«• to achieve that goal. But they also need visionary leaders who can G«£inspireG«• and capitalists who can empower (someone has to provide the conference room, pizza and Red Bull).

Jerry Johnson
Former CIO of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
BS Electrical Engineering and MBA
LFURMAN100
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LFURMAN100,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2013 | 6:55:04 PM
re: 5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures
It also happens at small privately held companies.

R o I can be measured as the inverse function of time lost-

- Slow Internet means time lost waiting for the web page to reload.
- Office 2003 today means time lost waiting for translators to translate documents created with the newer versions of the software to Office 2003.
- Exchange 2003 means difficult calendar synchronization with iOS and Android, and more difficult brick level restores.

If that time is 12 minutes per person per day, it's one hour per person per week.

That means a PC upgrade will pay for itself in one to three months per employee depending on the nature of the work-role and the value added by the worker and a physical to virtual migration, not counting enhanced reliability and lower electricity, cooling and physical space requirements, will pay for itself in a similar period of time, depending on the number of employees sharing the server resources.
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