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4/4/2013
02:43 PM
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Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons

Today's IT groups make too many ROI guesstimates and have too little accountability, says this financial industry IT exec, in his debut column for InformationWeek.

The usual response to this short-term culture, a three- to five-year vesting period for bonuses, doesn't actually encourage long-term thinking. Not when internal mobility is involved and definitely not when there's market- and industry-level competition for talent.

It should never come as a surprise when "too big to fail" stumbles, and spectacularly. What should be a surprise is when project planning contributes to that failure. What's missing in the business and/or IT project plan is agility, the organizational ability to act quickly and decisively. Because the opposite of big isn't small; it's nimble. It's culturally porous, focused on transparency. It's responsive and adaptive.

Helmuth von Moltke got it only half right when he said: "No plan survives first contact with the enemy." He should have said…

4. Detailed plans are the enemy. They're rigid, set too far in advance and take up so much management time that long-term planning is itself a risk to be mitigated. Project plans that extend past 90 days are as accurate as TV weather predictions.

The challenge if you're big is that it takes you longer than 90 days to get out of the bathroom every morning, which means that your business conditions -- the most important context for your IT projects -- change faster than the project. It's why users often reject technology that gives them what they asked for: By the time the technology is delivered, it's no longer what they need.

When the world outside is changing rapidly, IT projects should be forced into redefining themselves -- and often. Scope creep should be mandatory. Without it, IT's relevancy comes into question. With it comes the adoption of any new deliverable.

The institutional response to the need for speed is to bring in outside accelerators -- the IBMs if your company can afford them or the TCSs if they can't. The surprising part of that decision is that…

5. Bringing in the big outside guns only ensures that someone will get shot. It's the corporate equivalent of keeping a loaded .22 on your nightstand. There are two truths in that analogy. The first is that the only solid advantage outsourcers provide is that they're easy targets. The second is that .22s do more wounding than killing. They just make a mess that you have to clean up yourself.

The legitimacy that the big-name onshore outsourcers add to a project has less to do with increasing time-to-market and mitigating execution risk and more to do with the arcane calculus of career risk mitigation (see Reasons 2 and 3).

The cost savings that the offshore outsourcers promise are rarely realized and come at the price of increased project complexity. It's already difficult to speak in terms of cultural transformation. Now imagine having to merge and change four massive cultures: your corporate culture, their corporate culture, your national culture and their national culture.

Finally, bringing in outsiders keeps your workforce dumb. It locks you into a vendor interested in getting you hooked on its proprietary black box, the corporate equivalent of a gateway drug.

Outsourcing does transform IT: Engineering as a core competency gets replaced by the cult of sigma; technical leadership gets replaced by scientistic project management. Eventually, the organization has no internal decision-makers with any depth of technical experience. They have no choice but to snort the IBM salesman's lines.

And when the business eventually loses its competitive advantage and starts to become obsolete, it has no choice but to focus on cost reduction; no choice but to light the TCS pipe.

Next up: How do we get to that shining goal on the horizon?

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dhollyday
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dhollyday,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/10/2013 | 8:55:42 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
Hi:

I liked your recent article entitled "Why Tech Projects Fail" in Information Week.

I agree with most of your poiunts and have seen many first-hand having worked for large, mid-zized and small organizations in IT for the past 20+ years. I have also worked for some of the Outsourcers you single out and agree that its hard to see their value in many cases.

Regarding your point #4 - Detailed Plans Are the Enemy, I would have liked this point "fleshed out" a little more. What is your opinion regarding Project Management Methodologies like the PMI which largly focus on very large, detailed and projects?

It would be interesting to get your thoughts on this point.

Thanks

Richard Hollyday
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
4/10/2013 | 4:32:15 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
Oddly enough, I mention quants in the second part of this piece. I'll be interested in your feedback when IW publishes it.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
4/10/2013 | 4:19:49 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
The larger the company the more likely that ROI will be demanded. Scale is the real problem. A company is itself a social network and once it grows past a certain size, it can't trust that each node will act responsibly. Demanding ROI is the trust safety net. And few question whether there are huge holes in it.

It's funny how easily we can humanize bureaucracy or process heaviness by just framing it as a trust-building exercise.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
4/10/2013 | 3:13:32 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
I was on a panel recently discussing internal social networking projects, and the topic turned to ROI. I argued a lot of these have to be a leap of faith -- that you just aren't going to get a hard ROI on something as fuzzy as getting people to share ideas and collaborate better. But there was a sense that ROI still must be calculated at most companies.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
4/10/2013 | 1:35:11 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
Pat - Great point on intrapeneurs. Very interesting trend and ultimately, an indictment that IT lacks the credibility with their stakeholders when it comes to delivering adjacent and edge technologies quickly. Look for references in future columns to "elves."
MedicalQuack
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MedicalQuack,
User Rank: Moderator
4/10/2013 | 5:37:17 AM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
Nice article and just goes to show you can do anything with software:) I borrowed that from the guy who wrote the sub prime software that all the banks used and modeled for their trillions in profit. If you have never seen the documentary Quants, the Alchemists of Wall Street, watch it. Mike Osinski is the one why made the comment and he's in the movie and makes a good point on how some of what we see is vaporware and twisted code.

Right now we have a data mining epidemic going on to where they don't know when to stop and are in search of some non linear model and algorithms that will "save the day"...Models that lie in other words...I talk about it in healthcare and I call it Algo Duping.

http://ducknetweb.blogspot.hk/...

Here's a bunch of videos and the one above included on how Algo Duping works..I'm the curator and these are folks smarter than me. We are under the Attack of the Killer Algorithms...

http://www.ducknet.net/attack-...

Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/10/2013 | 3:09:08 AM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
I have to very whole-heartedly agree with point 3. It's not necessarily about multi-year projects, but about finding the proper solution when a need is identified.

For example, one organization that I'm quite well acquainted with has multiple "Enterprise Knowledge Management Platforms". Okay, so what's the problem with that? Cohesiveness, or lack thereof. Let's start from the beginning - when a new user gets on-boarded, they're bombarded with a list of URLs and sets of credentials for all of these platforms. As they progress, they start using the platforms and keep asking questions about where to find X, Y and Z. Meanwhile, X, Y and Z are on different platforms, but the user has to gather all of the information together, synthesize and report - thereby creating more content and having to choose which system to use to store it, since it has to be somewhere that everyone can get to. Now, wasn't the whole idea behind using an Enterprise Knowledge Management Platform to have a SINGLE place in the enterprise where all users can find and store all of the information that they work with? Instead, you have users who have to search through multiple, disparate knowledge sources - even ones that are considered depricated, legacy, "soon to be retired", etc. Meanwhile, all of them keep getting used and worker productivity drops like a stone.

What it boils down to, in this case, why worry about choosing a system to implement if you know that you're not going to be directly responsible for that choice by the time the organization realizes it wasn't the right one? If you're not going to be held accountable for a decision in three years, should you really be empowered to make that decision?

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
naperlou
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naperlou,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/8/2013 | 9:24:21 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
What is going on here????? These numbers have not moved for years and years!!!! Wasn't CASE suppossed to help? Waht about SOA/BPM?? What about agile? Can it just be a matter of organizational issues? I don't think so. Frankly the reason I am reacting so excitedly is that I have worked for the companies that sell a lot of those technologies. If they are really utilized as intended they would change the picture significantly (well, except agile). What I see as a real problem in the corporate software development world is a combination of the professional and personel issues mentioned with a lack of proper education or professional certification.

We often have people with computer science degrees or business degrees doing this work. What we really need is more people with software engineering degrees and certifications. I personally have a BS in Computer Science, but I have a lot of experience with software engineering, having gotten involved before software engineering degrees were offered. I am also a fan of certifications like the IEEE CSDP. I am also a member of the IEEE.

I also get upset about this issue because I worked at a few very advanced software development shops. We did not have these problems. We tracked software development very tightly and were able to estimate new projects very accurately. We were also able to manage them to completion through some techniques that I see filtering into approaches such as the PMP process just now. I was using them over 20 years ago.
spintreebob
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spintreebob,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/8/2013 | 5:09:10 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
Agreed on the five listed. Expanding on them: Sales people are under pressure to replace the existing with the new, regardless of whether the existing has a problem or not and regardless of whether the new is actually better, or just new. So sales people sell the sizzle and not the features or benefits...and certainly not the solutions their bullets claim. They tell the buyers "Buy this new technology and all your problems will be solved." The buyer is looking for a scapegoat. It's politically safer to blame the existing technology than blame the application and database designs and the coding and testing of the people you still have to work with. Whether a code generator or a performance monitor or project management tool, the manager who bought the sales pitch will ask the workers "Well did the tool fix the problem?" as if the code generator could fix the problem of a poorly designed application, or the performance monitor actually fixed the performance problem.
MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
4/8/2013 | 3:28:31 PM
re: Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons
I believe I have seen all five of these at some point in my career and agree they are top contributors to project failure. The cost consciousness and reductions in IT over the past few years have left some internal IT departments with overtasked skeleton crews and greater dependence on outsourcing. Number five however does not have to be the proverbial loaded gun. Two actions I think can mitigate the effects indicated in the article and reduce this risk. First, evaluate your outsourcing staff members as if you were hiring them (get their resumes if necessary). Depending on the outsourcer they can provide microspecialists which do nothing other than installing and configuring the HW/SW for your project. This experience can greatly reduce delays from testing/development to operations. Second, identify one FTE to shadow the contractor. Your internal staff can then perform the "lights on" maintenance and operation of the system once the keys are past. Naturally it all depends on the specific project, but these two actions have helped.
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