Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

Project-success
I remember years ago, my father used to joke about my mother (who occasionally got on his nerves :-): “you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.”Following the frequently dismal state of IT project performance generally, I’m beginning to think that way about technology projects.On one hand, technology represents innovation, automation, and the latest advances in engineering and science–and we cannot live without it–it is our future!On the other hand, the continuing poor track record of IT project delivery is such that we cannot live with it–they are often highly risky and costly:

  • In 2009, the Standish Group reported that 68% of IT projects were failing or seriously challenged–over schedule, behind budget, and not meeting customer requirements.
  • Most recently, according to Harvard Business Review (September 2011), IT projects are again highlighted as “riskier than you think.” Despite efforts to rein in IT projects, “New research showssurprisingly high numbers of out-of-control tech projects–ones that can sink entire companies and careers.”
  • Numerous high profile companies with such deeply problematic IT projects are mentioned, including: Levi Strauss, Hershey’s, Kmart, Airbus, and more.
  • The study found that “Fully one in six of the projects we studied [1,471 were examined] was a black swan, with a cost overrun of 200% on average, and a schedule overrun of almost 70%.”
  • In other words there is a “fat tail” to IT project failure. “It’s not that they’re particularly prone to high cost overruns on average…[rather]anunusually large proportion of them incur massive overages–that is, there are a disproportionate number of black swans.”
  • Unfortunately, as the authors state: “these numbers seems comfortably improbable, but…they apply with uncomfortable frequency.”

In recent years, the discipline of project management and the technique of earned value management have been in vogue to better manage and control runaway IT projects.

At the federal government level, implementation of such tools as the Federal IT Dashboard for transparency and TechStats for ensuring accountability have course-corrected or terminated more than $3 billion in underperforming IT projects.

Technology projects, as R&D endeavors, come with inherent risk. Yet even if the technical aspect is successful, the human factors are likely to get in the way. In fact, they may be the ultimate IT “project killers”–organizational politics, technology adoption, change management, knowledge management, etc.

Going forward, I see the solution as two-pronged:

  • On the one hand we must focus on enhancing pure project management, performance measurement, architecture and governance, and so on.
  • At the same time, we also need to add more emphasis on people (our human capital)ensuring that everyone is fully trained, motivated, empowered and has ownership. This is challenging considering that our people are very much at a breaking point with all the work-related stress they are facing.

These days organizations face numerous challenges that can be daunting. These range from the rapid pace of change, the cutthroat global competition at our doorsteps, a failing education system, spiraling high unemployment, and mounting deficits. All can be helped through technology, but for this to happen we must have the project management infrastructure and the human factors in place to make it work.If our technology is to bring us the next great breakthrough, we must help our people to deliver it collaboratively.The pressure is on–we can’t live with it and we cannot live without it. IT project failures are a people problem as much as a technology problem. However, once we confront it as such, I believe that we can expect the metrics on failed IT projects to change significantly to success.(Source Photo: here)

>Leadership: Fight or Flight

>

When we are confronted with difficult situations, people tend to two different responses: fight or flight.

Generally, people will stand and fight when they are either cornered and have no other option, when they will suffer undue harm if they just try and “let it go”, or when the issue is something that they really believe strongly in (like a principle or value such as equity, justice, righteousness, etc. that they feel is being violated).

In contrast, people typically will flee when they feel that they can get out of a bad situation mostly unscathed and their principles will not be violated (such that they can live with their personal and professional dignity intact). Often, people consider fleeing or a change of venue preferable to “getting into it” when it’s possible to avoid the problems that more direct confrontation can bring.

There is also a third option not typically addressed and that is just “taking it,” and letting it pass. In the martial arts, this is akin to taking someone’s best shot and just absorbing it—and you’re still standing. You go with the flow and let it go. This is sometimes feasible as a less dramatic response and one that produces perhaps less severe consequences (i.e. you avoid a fight and you still yield no ground).

Harvard Business Review (December 2009) in an article called “How to Pick a Good Fight” provides some guidelines on when as a professional you should consider standing up and fighting, as follows:

  1. “Make it Material”—Fight for something you really believe in, something that can create real value, noticeable and sustainable improvement.
  2. Focus on the Future”—Don’t dwell on the past or on things that cannot be changed. Spend most of your time “looking at the road ahead, not in the rearview mirror.”[This is actually the opposite of what 85% of leaders do, which is trying to figure out what went wrong and who to blame.”
  3. Pursue a Noble Purpose”—Make the fight about improving people’s lives or changing the world for the better.” I’d put it this way: stay away from selfish or egotistical fights, turf battles, empire building, and general mud slinging.

“The biggest predictor of poor company performance is complacency.” So leaders need to focus “the good fight” on what’s possible, what’s compelling, and what’s high impact. Great leaders shake things up when the fight is right and create an environment of continuous improvement. Leaders create the vision, inspire the troops, and together move the organization forward to greater and greater heights.

As for fleeing or “turning the other cheek” those venues are best left for issues of lesser consequence, for keeping the peace, or for times when you are simply better off taking up the good fight another day.