NZIM: When IT Projects Fail Blame Management

Given the potential of information technology to improve the way the public sector delivers its services, it is hardly surprising that government departments invest heavily. Unfortunately, many of these investments produce computer systems that either don’t work or don’t deliver the expected improvements.

The recent abandonment of the UK Home Office’s immigration system is just the latest in global list of IT projects where ambition exceeded ability. Recent additions to the list from the UK public sector include the abandoned project to make social benefit payments through post offices, the flawed passport system and the cancelled Ministry of Defence communications system.

This is not just British problem however. There is little evidence that other governments are doing any better. For example, key elements of the software for the Bibliotheque national de France were delivered nearly two years late and nearly 40 percent over budget.

Here in New Zealand, anyone could point also to the Incis police computer system. recent warts-and-all report by Jim Taylor, of Elizabeth Van Every University in Canada, points to numerous management shortcomings in the scoping, negotiation, planning and communication of the Incis project.

Even in the private sector failure is common. The most recent figures available on the success rates of large IT projects published by the UK Standish Group, indicates that only 28 percent are successful, the remainder being either abandoned, delivered late, over budget, or with lower functionality than was initially envisaged.

With those kinds of figures, embarking on major IT project is not just triumph of hope over experience but also very good business for lawyers.

Academic research carried out by Steven Flowers and Paul Nightingale of the UK’s ESRC Complex Products Systems Innovation Centre, jointly held between the University of Brighton and the University of Sussex has come up with two interesting findings:
1. IT projects are risky because software is inflexible and fragile. Software’s inflexibility means that even slight modifications in function may require major design modifications. Being fragile means that the more times computer programs are modified, the more likely they are to fail and need further modification.

2. Most of the problems associated with project failure aren’t technical. Instead they concern the softer issues about how the project is set up and managed. Technical features may make IT projects difficult but it is inappropriate management that makes them fail. Too often projects are undertaken without sufficient thought about their aims or because senior managers are seduced by consultants into adopting cutting-edge technology that may be totally inappropriate. The structure of government contracts and organisations can also create problems with suppliers unwilling to impart bad news to their clients.

So what lessons can be learned from this overseas research? What are organisations doing to ensure they don’t have similar problems with their IT projects.

According to Norma Hayward, Auckland NZIM’s learning and development manager, NZIM’s experience of helping those involved in such IT projects shows that these managers are keen to learn new skills. “However,” she says, “many of these people will start with us on our project management programme once the project is already under way. That can be too late. Frustration may have already set in. fundamental reason these projects fail is due to poor planning and scoping. Often these managers are not given the opportunity to plan – time pressures from senior management take over and the project is on its way before it has even been clearly defined.

“We also make every effort to ensure that people are learning the softer skills of project management,” says Hayward. “It’s not all about Gantt charts and Critical Path Analysis. Influencing, inspiring, motivating, negotiating, communication, team leadership, staff recruitment, creativity and financial know-how can all be vital to leading successful project. Client relationship building can also be key, as two parties will often be working very closely together for long period. If there are frictions, misunderstandings and poor communications between the software provider and the client there can only be trouble ahead.”

Hayward thinks senior management in smaller organisations can learn lot from the mistakes of the big guys such as the NZ Police, or the many examples from the UK. “If staff at all levels don’t have the wide range of management skills required the project is unlikely to succeed. Ultimately, it is senior management’s responsibility to provide the learning and support to make sure projects succeed. Investing in training and development can pay huge dividends and is often ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to the cost of the new software.”

NZIM project management facilitator Perry Larsen agrees that project management isn’t about Gantt charts and PERT diagrams. He says the major issue is about people working collaboratively and gaining full understanding of what the client really needs (clients being internal or external).

“The level of assumptions that are being made with regard to critical decisions is frightening,” he says. “The lack of clarity in direction and expected measurable [objective] outcomes is widespread.

“Senior management has habit of blaming lower levels when things go wrong – yet they continue to pay lip service to projects and good planning practices – by putting time pressure on employees to ‘just get on with it’.

“Companies that invest in training for staff also need to seriously think about development for the senior execs in order that they may better support the projects.

“Projects often fail due to young or inexperienced staff being thrown in the deep end – senior managers assuming that because they have particular skill or knowledge set – then others must have it as well.

“I can’t recall the last time project failed due to project team member’s technical incompetency. Most projects fail because the cross-functional teams haven’t communicated properly – too many assumptions have gone unchallenged and the project scope has been poorly defined with few objective measures of success clearly defined.”

Dr Jim Young, author of the book Orchestrating Your Project and Wellington-based NZIM facilitator of project management programmes, is not surprised at the findings of the overseas research. He acknowledges that IT projects seem to be inherently risky affairs, and uses an acrostic of the word INCIS to make the point that perhaps these projects suffer more than most from the following characteristics:

I Imprecise (definition)
N Novel
C Complex
I Inexperience
S Software (flexible and fragile)

“The compounding effect of these problems, coupled with heroic endeavour,” he says, “means that most fail. Clearly more disciplined approach to planning and risk management is needed. Although whatever tools are used, it’s the people that make the difference.”

A failure rate of 72 percent for IT projects causes Young to ponder what constitutes success. “Primarily success means that the project deliverable realises the benefits – hopefully contained in business case – that justified the investment. However, to also count as failures those IT projects that exceed time and cost estimates is perhaps unfair given those inherent characteristics? After all, an exact estimate is an oxymoron.

“Presumably IT project estimators get feedback, but perhaps an accurate estimate would never be approved,” he suggests.

It’s not all bad news though; many organisations are taking the management skills of those involved in IT projects seriously. Counties Power recently sponsored Dylan Andrews, information systems manager, to embark on NZIM’s six-month Managerial Excellence programme. Whilst attending the programme Andrews was also working on major pr

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