After a Massive Tech Project Failure: What IT Can Expect

The bigger the failed IT project, the harder the CIO falls -- almost never to recover, says Chris Curran, partner and CTO of Diamond Management & Technology Consultants. His advice: To avoid catastrophic project failure, do projects in bite-sized chunks, set proper expectations and embrace transparency.

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In addition, Curran is pessimistic that CIOs and senior IT leaders can do enough "damage control" after a problematic project. "I've never seen any cases where a CIO just moved along like, 'Everything's fine,'" he says. "Often, they're eventually demoted or pushed off into some operational role. Once you have a high-profile project that has your name on it and it fails, I don't know if you can recover."

What IT Can Do to Prevent Failure

CIOs who enter into $200 million Oracle ERP projects know the stakes, Curran says. "These large programs—the multi-hundred-million-dollar, multiyear projects—they just create such a peak to fall from," he adds. Even worse is when project teams set concrete, seemingly perfect expectations with the board and Wall Street about project cost and length. "But they don't know squat about what's going to happen tomorrow," he says.

Curran's advice for such massive undertakings, which CIOs and analysts talk up but many don't follow, is practical: Think bite-sized project chunks and set proper expectations. For instance, CIOs and program managers should say: "We know Company A spent $300 million on a similar project. Company B went two years over budget and spent half a billion. And Company C spent a $100 million,'" Curran says. "We know it's going to be somewhere in this neighborhood, but we're going to do it in chunks so that we can stomach it." (For Curran's views on project "influencers," see "How a CIO Can Influence Project Success.")

He also advises his clients and their IT shops to embrace change and transparency—even if it hurts at first. "The corporate culture—the status quo—tends to be: 'Everything's good. We don't talk about problems until they are near unrecoverable, because we know people don't like bad news,'" Curran says. But there are always going to be problems—vendor issues, or architecture, compliance or performance problems.

Curran says that the critical change in mindset has to be this: Problems and issues are good as long as we manage and talk about them.

"For some reason," he adds, "we haven't learned as an IT industry about driving incremental planning and change, which, in my mind, would help to mitigate the high rises and high falls of project failures."

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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