Project Rescue and Recovery
The other day a friend said that there were three reasons for project failure. I took exception and stated there were two. As I thought about it more, there is only one. People are at the root of all failures, everything else is a symptom. Let’s look at some common reasons.
The project is over constrained. People set the constraints. If they do not understand the project well enough to set the constraints, or listen to the people that are suggesting the constraints, then they are the problem.
I need your help. Why is it that as we get older, so many of us lose the desire to learn? Where is the fun in that? A few years ago, I was nearly sucked into it myself—at least for a few minutes. A half-dozen of us were sitting in a coffee shop talking about growing our businesses and conversation turned to Twitter—about its uselessness. As I drove back to my office, I thought, "The six of us ought to go tell the twenty million people using Twitter how foolish they are." With that utterance, I realized how I had been drug into the world of stasis. I spent the subsequent three days immersed in social media, studying Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and numerous other social tools. Now I am perplexed on how to get others to see the value. Let me fill you in on what I have learned about teaching people, maybe you can point out my flaw.
Again, I was chided for saying there are no Information Technology projects. This time, the excuse was that the company built software. I countered my antagonist by asking if the same group that built their software also maintained the account system, workstations, email, and network. "No, that is a separate group." He was missing that his company's production group was not IT. Information Technology is the support group... and yes, they should not be doing anything that fails to directly affect getting product out the door or reducing costs. Every project's goal must be to deliver to the operational needs of the company—selling product—not to the whims and desires of the IT group. If a project fails to address the needs of the customer (directly or indirectly), then it should never see a penny of funding. This seems such an elementary concept, but it is routinely violated by techno-bigots trying to implement the latest toy or tool.
I sent a note to professional organization's program director the other day asking if their group would be interested in hearing about methods to increase project success. The organization was for a technical group that worked with data transformation—a skill set used in every IT project I have ever been on. The reply came in a prompt, succinct, and sarcastic reply:
"We [sic] you please tell me just how this would ever relate to the members of our group. You obviously do not understand that we are not responsible for running the project."
A couple months ago I asked the question, "Who should the CIO report to?" on the LinkedIn's CIO Magazine Forum. Surprisingly, over 100 people responded, so many that the group's moderator moved the discussion to the jobs section. Maybe they were tired of the attention this old, beat-up subject was getting. I surely did not think responses would be quite as passionate as they were. However, my interest lay in another area, not in the answers to the direct question, rather the reasoning behind them.
Information Technology organizations continually struggle to build systems that meet their customer's needs. They work tirelessly developing solutions that are delivered late, difficult to use, or deficient in key features and functions. This is nothing specific to the last couple decades; it stretches back to the first systems developed. Fredrick Brookes eloquently underscores this in his recount of the 1960's software engineering project to develop the IBM 360 in his book The Mythical Man-Month (1975) and is required reading for all IT executives. For the Chief Information Officer to solve this problem takes a new approach, one, nearly opposite from today's direction.
CIOs have two major responsibilities—keeping IT's lights on (backups, networks, email, etc.) and providing support for business initiatives. Being mediocre at either will make for a short career. Although the respective budgets are normally a 70:30 split, a CIO will be fired in a minute for failing to properly support the 30%. That portion of their budget actually generates the company money. Keeping the lights on is a thankless job. People simply expect networks run, data served, and viruses inoculated. It is expected much as we expect water when turning on the tap. Supporting business initiatives is just as thankless since 60% of projects seem to always be in trouble.
Yes, I am on that soapbox. Ensuring that maintainability and adaptability are part of a system is a "best practice," extensibility is not. To the extent that a highly structured system is extensible, that is the end of any commitment to building for the future.
Adding hooks and stubs for something that may not happen, confuses and clutters the design of the resulting system. Building and running prototypes wastes time. Making a system extensible adds significant undefined scope. The reason is that no one knows what the future will bring. Furthermore, how can it be tested if the systems it is interfacing with are not defined?
The other day while preparing for an interview with Fortune Magazine, a junior colleague asked, "When recovering a failing project, what are the role differences for various people in the organization?" Great question! I had never sat down and captured that aspect of project recovery. After all, failed projects are a hodgepodge of lost leaders, perplexed project managers, and trampled team members. Without defining everyone's roles early and continually refining those roles, you will struggle establishing calm in what is otherwise a very stressful situation.
The first ingredient in recovering any project is trust. The team must trust the recovery manager, the customer must trust the supplier, team members must trust each other, and so on, until all permutations are exhausted. Without trust, all is for naught. Therefore, to have a successful recovery, or project for that matter, it is a requirement to thoroughly understand trust and how to foster it.