“No IT projects”? A practical take

If you follow the news, it’s quite clear that we’re in the “silly season” of politics, that time when people eagerly grab hold of any questionable statement of their opponent and use it to extrapolate rank incompetence or dastardly intentions (or worse). Language is frequently quoted out of context, definitions become blurred, things get inappropriately juxtaposed. We’ve all seen it.

That’s why they call it silly season. And that behavior isn’t just true of politics, but also can appear in normal business life, on Twitter, and (often) in IT matters as well. When I run across items I disagree with, though, I try to remember that rather than expressing categorical disagreement (let alone outrage), it’s far more useful to look first for common ground, then aim to identify the areas of contention or difference in perspective. That struck me recently when I read Todd Williams’ (@BackFromRed) recent blog post with the title “Stop All IT Projects!” and recalled that another esteemed colleague, Steve Romero (@itgEvangelist), has expressed views along the same lines.

Todd and Steve are both smart, experienced IT professionals whom I highly respect. In Todd’s case, we’ve met in person; in Steve’s, we’ve exchanged numerous emails and blog posts over recent years. Both of them unquestionably “get it” when it comes to IT matters. I generally agree with what they post or tweet; they’ve each written books that I recommend to others. In fact, I even agree with much of what Todd writes in this particular post. But still, with consummate respect, I think these colleagues (and others) are picking the wrong battle when they insist so staunchly on “no IT projects”. Here’s why.

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“ASAP” considered harmful

When do you want it?  “As soon as possible”, comes the ready answer.

Everyone says it. Everyone knows what they mean by it, in essence, and it seems fairly harmless.  But more often than not, I’ve seen it overused as a substitute for real thought and real leadership.

Especially in this new era of “internet time”, the declaration of “I want it ASAP” has often turned into an excuse not to plan, a rejection of due diligence and careful preparation, or even an intentional ignoring of previous lessons learned.  Taken to an extreme, it can represent the triumph of pure testosterone over diligence and caution.

Meg Whitman, former CEO at eBay, writes in her recent book, The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life about how one positive performance differentiator of individuals at eBay was their sense of urgency.  “eBay never would have prospered as it did without a team with a strong bias for action,” she states.  Having worked in a couple of places that were unnecessarily and infuriatingly slow in their decision-making, I too tend to generally applaud a bias towards action in business.  It reflects a philosophy that an imperfect plan executed right now is usually better than a perfect plan executed next year.  Or, as Seth Godin puts it in his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable: “Real artists ship.” Or, as a tweet I saw recently had it, “if you’re not embarrassed by the first launch of your product, that means you waited too long.”

However, one can take a bias towards action too far.

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We don’t like that estimate. Change it.

CIO: “We can’t go live in six weeks as you want.  It’s going to take at least three months.”

CEO: “That’s … unacceptable!

One of the most recurring memes in IT, for me, has to be hearing “we don’t like that estimate”, coming from stakeholders, senior management, etc. Depending on the mood and/or semi-intellectual rigor of the person saying it, the conversation then typically devolves into one or more of the following:

  1. identifying and removing any hint of schedule contingency (which is often viewed as padding just to make life easier for IT);
  2. mentioning repeatedly the idea of “what if we double the team size to get it done twice as fast” etc.;
  3. conducting a scrutiny, one by one, of the bottom-up estimates (”it won’t really take three days to test that feature”);
  4. volunteering resources (usually less than qualified) to “help”;
  5. insisting on scheduling full-time work for all remaining weekends and holidays between now and the desired launch;
  6. making frequent use of the phrase “why don’t you just …”
  7. declaring that system delivery must occur by a specific date, no matter what.

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The IT project failure dilemma: how to get early warnings

Thinking about how to prevent big system project failure has somehow always reminded me of the Will Rogers quote: “Don’t gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.”

In other words, with big projects, by the time you realize it’s failed, it’s pretty much too late.  Let’s think a bit about the reasons why, and what we can do to change that.

First off, I’ve never seen a big project fail specifically because of technology. Ever. And few IT veterans will disagree with me. Instead, failures nearly always go back to poor communication, murky goals, inadequate management, or mismatched expectations.  People issues, in other words.

So much for that admittedly standard observation. But as the old saying goes, “everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” What, then, can we actually do to mitigate project failure that occurs because of these commonplace gaps?

Of course, that’s actually a long-running theme of this blog and several other key blogs that cover similar topics. (see my Blogroll to the right of this post). Various “hot stove lessons” have taught most of us the value (indeed, necessity) of fundamental approaches and tools such as basic project management, stakeholder involvement and communication, executive sponsorship, and the like.  Those approaches provide some degree of early warning and an opportunity to regroup; they often prevent relatively minor glitches from escalating into real problems.

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Simple, more practical approaches to actual resource allocation

Anyone ever tell you that a simpler approach can often work better than a more complex one? Whoever it was, it probably wasn’t a project management software vendor.  But simplicity has its merits, and I’d like to point out a few of these when it comes to resource allocation.

Project management, at its core, is largely about resource allocation, and this gets tricky when you have multiple projects going on, as most organizations do. Almost as much as I’ve seen organizations drop the ball entirely on cross-project resource allocation (essentially, simply pretending that there will be no contention issues), I’ve seen organizations go to the other extreme: they dive into the depths of intense Project Management, in capital letters: taken too far too fast, this approach can spin up to a high level of rigor and overhead, involving often-expensive software packages, precise low-level estimates, diligent collection of actuals, and ornate project calculations of hours burned and hours earned.  At the end, there you stand, like Goethe’s Faust, “no wiser than before.”

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IT transparency is good. But how transparent should you be?

A few years back, I had an extremely surprising and unpleasant experience as CTO. The director of my Program Management Office ran a weekly status meeting for project stakeholders, where we’d all methodically go through the current project portfolio, in order to communicate on issues, gather necessary feedback, and align everyone’s expectations. I typically attended in order to provide input and executive-level decision participation, but left it to the director to actually run the meeting and present the topics.

Unfortunately, immediately before one of these weekly meetings, that director was given bad news (in a brief hallway conversation, no less) about a major bug that had just been discovered in the software for our highest profile project, which was currently in testing and due to launch in just a couple of weeks.  This project, with its strategic and revenue-enhancing potential, was foremost in the minds of everyone in the company.  Stakes were high, in other words.

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Complexity isn’t simple: multiple causes of IT failure

Roger Sessions recently published a white paper on IT complexity and its role in IT project failure: “The IT Complexity Crisis: Danger and Opportunity”.  It’s certainly possible to quarrel with bits and pieces of his analysis, and thereby tweak his numbers, but the overall thrust remains undeniable: IT failures are costing the world incredible amounts of real money. Sessions even sums it up under the dire-sounding phrase, “the coming meltdown of IT,” and says, “the out-of-control proliferation of IT failure is a future reality from which no country—or enterprise—is immune.” And he presents “compelling evidence that the proliferation of IT failures is caused by increasing IT complexity.”  He points out that the dollar cost of IT failure in the US alone is close to the cost of the recent US financial meltdown, and cites indications that the rate of failure is also increasing by 15% per year.

Roger’s paper is excellent and thought-provoking, and I recommend it highly. And I do agree with his view that complexity is the chief culprit in IT failure. That said, I think his argument focuses a little too strongly on one cause of complexity (unnecessary overcomplexity of architecture), to the neglect of other important factors.

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“Refuse to lose”: how executive pressure contributes to IT failure

“We went live before the system was ready”.  It’s a common excuse/explanation that I hear from IT people when they tell war stories about system launches that failed miserably. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) is the add-on statement: “and we told them so beforehand, too.”

There are obviously many things (and many parts of the org chart) that contribute to a failed launch, but here I’d like to focus on what drives this particular kind of launch-before-readiness, where the views of the rank-and-file are unheard or ignored.

In a nutshell: it’s management pressure. Sometimes that pressure comes from middle management, sometimes from the very top, and often from both.

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