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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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