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The Horror of Technology Projects

Sooooo change. Happens a fair bit in organisations. Back in the day major disruptions were few and far between; but we have now had years of becoming accustomed to ongoing, disruptive and fast change. Our organisations need to adapt to rapid and relentless change.... or die at the hands of more able competition.

And change comes in all shapes and sizes; from simple organic growth to a merger or acquisition; from exploring a new market to determining whether to pull out of one. Whatever the root cause, you can bet that the technology that enables and supports your organisation is going to be impacted every step of the way. While technology change can unleash the rich rewards that IOT, block chain, RPA and AI promise; revolutionising our organisations in every way - reaping these rich technology rewards, means undertaking technology projects.

Regardless of where you do your research - McKinsey, Gallup, HBR, Gartner, CIO, PWC, Wellingtone etc... the stats on tech projects rack up in a very similar way. IT projects are full of risk and rarely truly successful - i.e. the meet the desired outcomes.

At least 1/3 of them are big, fat-assed failures.
1/6 are 'black swans' - a project so rubbishy that it had a financial over run of 200+% and schedule overrun of at least 70%.
Last but not least - 17% of IT project suck so badly they can end the organisation.

As you would expect, the larger the project - the bigger the risk. An IT project with a budget over $1M is 50% more likely to fail than one with a budget below $350,000. According to The Project Management Institute’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession report this failure rate is the equivalent of throwing a match on $97M for every $1BN invested. Yeah.... not sure any organisation is in such a great financial position that torching the percentage equivalent of $97M is going to be ok with tax payers or shareholders.

So why are technology projects so bloody hard?

There are multiples of reasons given for why tech projects fail. There is not enough space to dive deep into them all, so here are few that get consistent mentions...

Misalignment between IT and the wider business....and externals vendors. Organisations fail to bridge the gap between strategy, design and delivery. Technology projects are wider than the IT team; but key stakeholders are often not included in the project team or are consulted about scope until late in delivery. The organisation does not invest in painting a vision of the future. While most research specifically references the business, external vendors and contracts also fall into the gap too.

Complexity and impact of change is not understood or visible. Any new implementation of technology will require a view of the current internal technology environment (aka current state). This is important for scoping the new project but also determining the constraints, dependencies and risks involved. While some organisations seek to reduce risk by utilising external consultants (e.g. the big 4 or vendors) to write reports to explain the 'gotchas' so work with the limited information they already have. The time, expense and peoples patience involved can add up.

Executives don’t recognise that strategy is delivered through technology projects. Change is constant but delivered in milestones; every project driving organisations closer to their goals. Without a clear understanding of how each prior project enables the next, it's easy to lose track of what the goal is and how each project is a step forward in achieving it. Executives (C-suite and the board) don't have a clear view of how technology enables their current business or it will continue to do so as the business changes over over time. (see Frankenview of Technology for more information on outdated mental models).

The project team. Firstly, project management is essential to running a technology project; as is the composition of the project team. Many large organisations don't invest in a PMO, hire kick ass technology PMs or design the project team with success in mind. In many cases the team structure is not considered or worse the project team has day jobs as part of the IT Team. Organisations run the gauntlet trying to balance large projects along side business as usual work and trying to make their people stretch across both. Such situations will increase stress and create competing priorities which are recipe for burnout and overall project failure.

So what are fixes?

There are no easy fixes but the literature make several recommendations. These fall into the broad buckets of people, process and communications.


Invest cold hard cash in recruiting, managing and retaining the best people. One dollar spend on talented, team players will save 000's on delivering a poorly scoped, implemented and then re-worked technology project. The project management office consistently get it in the neck for projects when they go off the rails. So continue your investment into ensuring that they have the people, tools, techniques and support to deliver successful outcomes.

Appoint a Champion! From my own experience, one champion at a senior level (preferably C-suite) can do wonders. They are essential for aligning IT and the wider business. Champions can develop a share future vision that with care and attention, everyone in the organisation can quickly get on board with. They remove obstacles from project teams, are cheerleaders for change, can explain risk v reward at every level and smooth waters when things get choppy.


Understand Risk. Getting a stable baseline or current state is a critical first step to determining the interdependencies, success criteria and subsequent milestones for any project. If done well it will include more than the technology solutions and consider the infrastructure, data, end users, existing contracts as well as business activities. Ideally it should also be able to determine the impact of change to any of these components. This helps to remove ambiguity, ensure that what is agreed is delivered and by whom. See State3 for more details

Pick a Methodology. Similar to investing in your people, invest in educating the project team and wider business on the principles of the project methodology adopted. Agile is a great example of how project management principles may be beneficial beyond the scrum team or project parameters.


Focus on the Business Value. While many technologist can disappear down a rabbit hole on detail, the wider business needs to know WIIFM (i.e. 'whats in it for me?') End user adoption is often reliant on building a clear understanding between the project and organisational outcomes; but this needs to be readily understood at all levels of the organisation. If you have a marketing or coms team, their involvement here is a great way to sell the overall business value in plain speak.

Bringing all these components together in a consistent way is how organisations can embrace change and realise the outcomes that emergent technology can provide.

To find out how we can help you - get in touch, we'd love to talk.

This blog was originally posted on September 2019

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