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Why So Many “IT Projects” Fail

“When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.” —Howard Schultz

For the last few weeks, I’ve been on the road to support the release of my new book, People Before Things. My schedule has been full of speaking engagements, which has given me the opportunity to have conversations with hundreds of people. Many of these discussions have ended with a common theme—IT professionals (of all levels) don’t feel like they’re making a difference.

And the source of their frustration? Project failure.

I know from my own work that these people aren’t alone. Harvard Business Review reports that one in six “IT projects” have an average cost overrun of 200%. Gallup reports that the US economy loses up to $150 billion a year because of “IT project” failure. In fact, these types of stories and stats were the motivation for my book. I knew that a lot of hard-working, dedicated people were being hurt … and I wanted to help!

Before jumping head-first into a discussion about what can be done, I’d like to debunk a myth. You may have noticed my use of quotation marks when referencing “IT projects.” If we’re ever going to be successful, we have to acknowledge that there is no such thing as an “IT project.” Rather, we need to get comfortable with the idea that we have business projects with technology enablement. As such, IT leaders should never have to walk the plank on their own and push disruptive technology-fueled change without the partnership and support of other key executives.

While we’re talking about executive involvement, let me debunk another myth. Change isn’t an end-user problem; it’s a leadership opportunity. Here’s what I mean: often, when new technology is rolled out, there is a belief that if good communications and training are provided, team members will comply with the expectations related to the new system. And when they don’t comply, more training and communications is prescribed. It’s like, “The beatings will continue until morale improves!” Well, it takes more than that to achieve high adoption and desired outcomes.

I believe that leaders have to enable and activate certain conditions for team members to be successful with change—and without these conditions, many projects will fail … before they even get started.

To explain my positioning, I’d like to leverage the work of one of the greatest thinkers on organizational health today, Patrick Lencioni. Pat has a simple belief: for companies to succeed, they have to be SMART and HEALTHY. SMART is marketing, IT, strategy, finance, etc. HEALTHY is minimal politics, minimal confusion, and crystal clear clarity. In Pat’s experience, companies rarely fail because they aren’t SMART enough.

If I click down to the project level, I believe the same thing is true. For projects to succeed they have to be SMART and HEALTHY. SMART is good engineering, solid project management, rigorous quality assurance, and stabilized operations and support. HEALTHY is all the people-related groundwork needed to be successful with change. In my experience, projects rarely fail because they aren’t SMART enough; rather, they fail because they aren’t HEALTHY enough.

Reflecting back on the conditions leaders need to own, all of them are focused on the HEALTHY side of the ledger. In total, I believe that seven key conditions are needed. Today, let’s talk about three: Alignment, Design, and Capacity. Based on my 25 years of Business Transformation and IT experience, including 14 as a CIO, I’ve found that these three conditions have more influence on project success than any other.

Alignment is ensuring that everyone in the organization knows WHY a certain change is needed. You see, by their very nature, goals and strategy tend to be very WHAT-focused. “Here’s WHAT we’re going to do.” As an example, executive leaders might decide that they want to focus on more growth and development opportunities for their team members. This is a very noble WHY. However, instead of sharing those details, they declare to the organization that, “IT is rolling out a new learning management system.” Not very powerful, huh? Communicating the WHY not only motivates followership, it provides the needed clarity downstream as the project team identifies the true requirements of the system, and attempts to manage scope and expectations.

Design is also an important condition to grease the skids for change adoption. We all recognize that when things are intuitive and easy to use, it takes less learning time. That said, I don’t know many IT professionals who jump out of bed in the morning and say, “I’m going to design something really counterintuitive and hard to use today!” So, good design is more than a declaration that our systems need to be simple. Thinking back on alignment, leaders can cut many complexities out of systems by ensuring execution teams are staying focused on delivering only the WHY … and nothing more. They can also work to understand and support human-centered design to ensure only the essentials are included.

Capacity is the third condition and doesn’t require a lot of explanation. For people to be successful with change, they need the time of day to learn the new system. If team members already have a 40-hour/week job, and the new system takes 10 hours a week for a few weeks to fully adapt to and adopt, where will they get the time? Some executive leaders expect team members will give discretionary effort. This creates a frenetic, “always-on” culture that is a fast-path to disengagement. So, leaders need to apply techniques to ensure their team has the time required to do the job right. If they don’t, the long-term impact can be costly.

So why do so many “IT projects” fail? Quite simply, because the human experience hasn’t been honored. In some cases, leaders try to coerce team members to accept something new with disingenuous communications and elementary training programs. In other cases, leaders are absent all together. The solution in all these cases is for leaders to put people before things. Always.

If you’re interested in fully learning about the seven conditions for success, I hope you’ll read People Before Things: Change Isn’t An End-User Problem.

Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a best-selling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.