Persistent problems and conventional thinking

I have been thinking a lot about projects and project management lately. Why? Because effective project delivery is critical to delivering value from IT and as an industry we don't do a great job of delivering our projects. We are all aware of the statistics.

Most commentators report that 50 per cent of our projects fail and to make matters worse, the larger and more critical a project, the more likely failure is. Until we change these statistics, we will continue to struggle to deliver to our organisations and we will struggle to be taken seriously in the executive room.

It's not as if this is a new problem. We have struggled with this problem for decades and we seem to be no closer to a solution today than we were when I began working with technology back in the middle of the 1980s (I now feel old!).

This is a persistent problem for the information and technology industry. When I see a persistent seemingly unsolvable problem I begin to wonder about how useful our conventional wisdom is. After all, if the conventional wisdom was right then surely we would have solved the problem by now. But we haven't, so maybe our conventional wisdom is wrong. I can't help but think of the Einstein quote "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

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We often see these blind alleys as failed projects and while they are failed projects they are almost an inevitable part of learning.Owen McCall

This has led me to begin to examine some of our conventional thinking as it relates to project delivery. I certainly don't have all the answers but here are some initial thoughts.

IT value comes from synergy (i.e. value is delivered when the value of the systems ecosystem is greater than the value of the individual parts of that ecosystem or 1 + 1 = 3). Yet our organisations are not very good at synergistic thinking. Rather we more typically break things down into manageable chunks, handing these chunks to individuals to manage then holding them to account for the effective delivery of the chunk. This works well for many things but is potentially disastrous when effective synergy is the ultimate driver of value, as is the case with technology. The chunk that is the project got done but it didn't contribute to a synergistic whole and may have even detracted from it. We see this expressed in projects when the project succeeded but the business benefits were not achieved. There is a medical saying that seems relevant for this - the operation was a success, but the patient died.

We are always going to need to chunk things down to be able to arrive at initiatives that are executable. However, perhaps we need to change the emphasis of our thinking so that our first priority is creating the synergistic whole and our second priority is about understanding the value of the individual project.

The Digital Advantage, a joint research out of MIT and Capgemini provides some evidence for this synergistic link. One of the dimensions that they studied was management intensity. Management intensity, defined as the "vision to shape a new future, governance and engagement to steer the course" is a reasonable proxy for a focus on synergy. The result of their study is that organisations with high management intensity, a high focus on synergy, significantly outperformed their peers in both profitability and market valuation.

To be successful, IT needs to satisfy engineering and psychological needs. A brilliantly engineered system will perform well at a technical level. However, if people hate it, then it is unlikely that value will flow. Alternatively if users love the system but it is slow and unreliable, frustration will occur and it is unlikely that value will flow. To be successful in technology requires us to master both left brain engineering and right brain psychology. IT crosses this divide completely. Hardware and networks are a complex engineering problem however software is front and centre with people, their preferences, idiosyncrasies and insecurities. Very few people or organisations are good at both, but both are critical to the delivery of value.

Historically IT has been strong at the engineering discipline and weak at the psychological aspects of IT. You see this is all of our core traditional methodologies. We take an engineering approach to project delivery, we have infrastructure engineers, software engineers etc. This is starting to change with major trends developing in the more psychological aspects of IT. We now have increasing numbers of user experience designers, software designers and growing focus on understanding and enabling customer journeys. These are encouraging trends and need to continue until they become at least the equal of the engineering disciplines and therefore deliver balance between the engineering and psychological.

Rapid change. The pace of IT change is unprecedented. Many parts of our society, organisations and businesses change slowly. For example, the global supply chain today relies on the same basic building blocks it did 100 years ago with the exception of air freight. The principles of engineering that underlie building work haven't changed in centuries and while building materials evolve they evolve relatively slowly. IT, however, has undergone at least three revolutions in 50 years and while there are some similarities between these "ages" of IT there are also many differences.

This pace of change makes knowledge transfer extremely difficult. One generation grows up in an IT tradition. They learn as they go and formalise some approaches that seem to work. They then pass on these learnings to the next generation. Problem is IT has changed and while some of what they have learnt is relevant, much of it is not as new skills and disciplines are required to be successful in the new IT age. As a result, that generation needs to relearn, which they do and then they pass what they have learnt on to the next generation and so the cycle repeats.

The problem is that learning almost always involves going down some blind alleys. We often see these blind alleys as failed projects and while they are failed projects they are almost an inevitable part of learning.

So, that's my starting point for some of the underlying problems. Maybe I've gone down some blind alleys myself and this is almost certainly incomplete. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you think are some of the issues in our conventional thinking and also your thoughts on the three ideas presented above.

Owen McCall is an experienced management consultant and CIO, and a member of the editorial advisory board of CIO New Zealand. Reach him through

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