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 bestselling 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.

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I Like to Lie a Lot

“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.” - Pablo Picasso

I was having one of those afternoon “summer jam” kind of days; driving down the road with the music blasting and my sunroof open. Admittedly, I wasn’t cool enough for vintage Metallica or Led Zeppelin IV. No, I was a 40+ year old man checking out Ed Sheeran’s album, X. On it, he has a song called "Don’t." I was really intrigued with the lyrics the very first time I heard it. I think we all have the propensity to enjoy a good break-up song now and then, and for me, this was one of those moments. The lyrics are pretty cutting. The chorus especially got my attention…

A few days later, my wife Kristine was in the car with me. My new favorite song came on. So, I turned it up and subjected her to a few bars of my terrible falsetto as I sang along. The chorus kicked in and I belted out, “I like to lie a lot!” She started to chuckle and asked me, "What did you just sing?" I turned down the radio and simply said the words this time. Kristine quickly corrected me and said, “I don’t think those are the lyrics. I think he’s singing...Ah...lamlahlah.” Of course, I got defensive and asked, “Why would those be the lyrics?! The whole song is about a lying woman so maybe he’s saying he likes to lie a lot because a) he’s either lying about her story or b) she likes to lie a lot and is a dirty cheat!” This debate lasted a few days. Later, we confirmed that Kristine was in fact correct.

It’s funny how one line in a song could change the whole meaning or intent. And for whatever reason, that's what happened to me with this song. It’s not funny, however, when the same type of thing happens in the workplace, is it?

Sometimes we are certain someone said something or had some specific intent - and it causes us to spiral for a few hours or even days.

Have you experienced something similar? Have you ever been in a meeting where you are sure your archrival took a jab after you gave a team or project update? Or what about an email from an internal stakeholder who made some comment that sounds like an attack on your follow-through skills and work quality? How about a “fly-by” critique provided by a boss as (s)he was running to another meeting? How many times have misunderstood communications disrupted your good chi?

As a human being, I've misinterpreted people's words, too...and often. As a leader, I’ve mediated such disputes. And as a consultant, I’m already coaching clients through similar situations. It’s amazing how much time and energy is wasted on common misunderstandings.

Here's the thing: measuring intent is impossible. And at the same time, when someone says something, it takes great discipline to accept it for what it is. Unfortunately, tone and word choice can cast an ugly cloud, which prevents us from seeing the full picture. Psychologists have proven that judging intentions is fruitless given the fact that most people don’t even understand their own motivations. However, there is a lot of scientific research which reminds us past behavior is the single best predictor of future behavior.

Said another way, judging actions is more effective than judging intentions.

But before you start tallying up how many times your archrival has "slashed your tires in the parking lot," let me share a powerful tip. I once had a boss who used to say,

“Objectivity is lethal.”

For me, this was such great advice. In my professional life, the more I can be objective about a situation or keep a situation focused on objective criteria, the easier it is to build trust and followership. I won’t lie - it's sometimes difficult and requires effort. I find though that by repeating that line ("objectivity is lethal") in my head when I’m starting to judge intent and tone, it helps tremendously.

Now that I’m finished with this blog, it’s time to jump back into summer jams. I still think, “I like to lie a lot,” is a better chorus. Next song to figure out: “Blinded by the Light" by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. "Wrapped up like a…” What are they saying?!?


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 bestselling 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.

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Why CIOs Don’t Become CEOs

“A leader is one that knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” —John C. Maxwell

Last week, I sat down for an afternoon coffee with a seasoned Chief Information Officer (CIO), Jim. (Name changed for the purpose of this blog.) He and I are connected to some of the same people but had never formally met. Over the years, I’ve heard such great things about him, especially how he focuses on team members first. I was anxious for the meeting and grateful for his time—I learned quite a bit in that hour and a half.

One of the things Jim said that really piqued my interest was a passing comment about CIOs becoming CEOs. He said, “I resolved a long time ago that the CIO job would be the pinnacle of my career.” It caught me off guard because, if I’ve ever met a CIO with the presence and experience to run a company, it was Jim. But then he followed up with,

“CEOs so rarely understand the CIO role … how can you ever get promoted if your boss [or Board] doesn’t even know if you’re doing a great job or not?”

It’s no secret that as a CIO I was interested in becoming a CEO. As such, Jim’s revelation really got my attention. We’ve all seen the stats, which clearly state that less than 2% of CIOs become CEOs, while 79% of CIOs have an interest in growing into a larger role. However, I’ve never found a succinct answer for why CIOs rarely breakthrough to the next level. I thought Jim might be onto something.

This conversation reminded me of a CIO conference I attended. There was an audience of well-respected technology leaders representing well-respected companies. Our closing keynote speaker was the President of one of the attending brands. (I guarantee you would know the brand.) His talk was meant to reassure us that the work of IT was vital and, in his case, moving his organization forward. Instead, he bragged to the audience, “My IT guy is here. I don’t know exactly what he does, but I know we’re spending $30 million a year on technology and innovation.” During the Q&A session, one outspoken CIO had the guts to ask, “How can you spend $30 million on anything and not bother yourself with what your ‘IT guy’ is doing?” He wasn’t alone in the crowd with this thought.

When I reflect on that President’s words, two questions come to me. First, in this market, is it professionally and socially acceptable to plead ignorance about technology? I ask because we routinely hear about digital transformation and how it is changing business (inside and out). We also see how the most relevant and quickly growing public companies focus on innovation. If I ask most CEOs, “What’s the biggest challenge(s) in your organization today,” (s)he is readily able to provide a laundry list of improvement opportunities … most of which have some connection to technology. So, why is it acceptable to not know more?

Second, if a CEO is disconnected from the job of the CIO, what’s the likelihood that technology-enabled change has half a chance of succeeding in his/her organization? CIOs rarely push change that originates solely in his/her office. Rather, it’s more common for some new innovation to solve a pain point or seize an opportunity that originates in other, non-IT functions. To rally people in the organization for a change, the CEO has to offer and reinforce a compelling WHY that connects team members to purpose. If (s)he doesn’t, why would team members believe the work is important?

We all know CEOs must be highly effective at identifying opportunities to improve an organization. I’m just saying that in most cases, those opportunities need to be solved with some combination of people, process, AND technology—in concert. And when a solution requires an organization to change, it’s critical the CEO takes accountability with the other leaders to enable and activate people for that change. And this most certainly requires a high level of collaboration with the CIO.

In 2016, you’d probably never hear a CEO proclaim that the CFO’s job was a mystery or that good money was being invested by the function of Finance with unknown outcomes driven by misunderstood activities. That would be viewed as categorically irresponsible. Rather, CEOs regularly collaborate with CFOs to ensure the financial health of the company.

It just makes sense to do the same with a CIO given that technology is such a large part of day-to-day operations and touches almost every single team member and process in the organization.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying all CIOs are ready to become a CEO. The expectations of good leadership for CIOs are the same as any other executive leader. You have to be transformative across functions and have a bias for action. Most importantly, you have do the people-related groundwork that’s required to build followership. If you can’t do that, the CEO position shouldn’t be the goal. But a final consideration for CEOs: identifying those attributes in CIOs doesn’t require you to be an engineering savant or how to write code. Therefore, it’s probably not okay to not know what your IT guy is doing or if they’re doing a good job.


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 bestselling 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.

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