Managing line-of-business projects

Why do line-of-business projects fail?

Laptop floating on life preserver in ocean needing to be rescued
Credit: Thinkstock

How can you distinguish a green CIO from a seasoned one? That is simple! The newly minted CIO will agree to manage a line-of-business (LOB) project.

A colleague recently related this story to me: “When our hospital’s executive team held a meeting to announce they were pursuing a new EMR (electronic medical records) solution, the CIO immediately stood up and said, 'We will gladly provide IT support, guidance and leadership, but this is a line-of-business project and an LOB expert should lead the project.'” That’s a savvy CIO! He will still have a job if the project sinks into the cold, dark abyss of failed enterprise initiatives.

threatening dangerous rough ocean concept with sharks and life preserver thinkstock

Line-of-business projects are shoals no CIO should ever enter unless he or she is an expert in that specific business. Whether you are a hopeless ingénue or a good captain ordered to enter those dangerous waters, you’ll need a really detailed map that you may have to build yourself. That map includes a deep understanding of specific business requirements, workflow, expertise in industry best practices, regulatory compliance and much more. If you scrape your hull against just one hidden iceberg, you might end up going down with the ship.

Assessing business requirements

Do you have trusted staff members qualified to identify and analyze all the business requirements for such a project? I’m not sure what qualifies someone to perform this type of work. I learned it from 15 years of studying composition and music theory that included five years of graduate school. If you analyze and account for every note in hundreds of sonatas and symphonies, complex business processes will seem simple by comparison.

Learning a new business process is a lot like learning a new piece of music: You immerse yourself in it for days, weeks, months — whatever it takes. You examine the processes from every perspective, map out the requirements and isolate the difficulties. Switch views between the micro and the macro constantly. You should always be thinking about what the end product will ultimately look like from the beginning of the project.

I’ve seen programmers, engineers, business types, clinicians, sociologists and others do it well. I have been less than impressed with IT staff performing these tasks, but maybe I am jaded from 20 years of salvaging or condemning failed enterprise projects. Often, those projects were unsuccessful because they were approached from an IT perspective rather than from a line of business point of view. In many of those projects, end user concerns were marginalized and invalidated in favor of some nebulous IT agenda. In the finales, the end users always got their revenge.

Beware of dragons

There's another reason why a CIO might volunteer to manage an LOB project — empire building. This is another characteristic that distinguishes the seasoned CIO from the guppy. Successful CIOs drive in their lane. They follow my Nana’s sage advice: “Mind your own beeswax.”

I don’t understand what drives some IT executives to get involved in “improving” business processes in another department or division, and these attentions are often unwelcome in the enterprise. Time and again, these activities are driven by the CIO’s failure to manage his or her own operations well. “Nothing to see here folks, look over there.” If you have time to worry about other people’s jobs and activities, you either don’t have enough to do or you’re doing it poorly.

Should you still have aspirations for building an empire, do some research by binge-watching a few seasons of Game of Thrones. If you have the required analytical skills, and the project turns out to be a success, you may be knighted for your excellent work. However, when things go wrong, aspiring kings and emperors are poisoned, lose their heads or end up uttering "Et tu, Brute?" as they are ushered into a premature retirement. That unassuming line of business executive you stepped on might have a few dragons at her disposal.

Empire building is bad for business and bad for everyone in the organization. It creates conflicts and resentments and it can lead to massive project failures.

The root cause of enterprise project failure

Why do enterprise and line-of-business projects so often fail? Although it has been written about for 2,500 years by everyone from Aeschylus to Tom Wolfe, the answer isn’t taught in business school. We all learned about the root cause of project failure in high school English class but most of us seem to have forgotten those important lessons. Or perhaps we have never bothered to apply metaphors learned so long ago to our careers.

At the root of it, projects fail because of hubris. The hubris I have seen over the years from CIOs, CEOs and CFOs who were overseeing failed projects has always been incredible to behold. Overconfident and underprepared, they set sail without a compass, a map or enough provisions for the journey. They left port trying to catch a whale with a crew that only knew how to catch minnows. They cast off without knowing where they were going, and they are always astonished when they end up lost at sea. The next time you are asked to manage an LOB project, don’t make the same mistakes.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

To comment on this article and other CIO content, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
Download the CIO October 2016 Digital Magazine
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.