Posts Tagged ‘Project Failure’

Published in MIS Asia – What is the body count?

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

We count cost to life and limb on a building project yet strangely not on IT projects

I was walking past the Marina Sands site in Singapore on the phone to a friend. At several billion dollars in design, man hours, fine art and no doubt many interesting stories, this project is amazing. I saw a sign reporting safety with a tagline of ‘everyone home without harm, every day’. Ie no deaths, no injuries. A back of the envelope calcuation told me just how amazing a feat this was – over several hundred man-years have gone into this construction.

‘I’m having heart palpitations’ my friend said. My attention returned to the call. ‘One of my male Korean colleagues has just burst into tears, and the new American guy has just done the hairy foreigner’. (‘doing the hairy foreigner’ is a term meaning to lose one’s temper at staff in Asia – very un-cool).

“Just a moment! Hasn’t your transformation program just kicked off?’ I asked…

The writing is on the wall

Those few seconds re-defined the project in my mind. From one that looked well set up, there were now warning signs for failure. Three of the senior team leading the transformation were showing signs of major stress and after the last year, most of the people in the business were likely to be stressed (coping with recession, family members loosing jobs, having your savings depleted supporting them, worrying about your own job will do this even for the lucky folk with a job).

Stress on both sides. Next step, heart attacks or long term leave for people. For the business, project results and organizational productivity at risk.

Often, these risks are considered once an executive has a heart attack. Other people step up to carry the team – more stress, a negative cycle begun. It becomes normal. For most of us in project land, we are used to the adrenaline of overdrive.

Pollution Costs

Just what will this cost the organization? Project delay becomes likely as replacements are found. Key relationships are broken as people depart (either from resignation or from death). Results are delayed as people and the business focus on recovery and repair. This is before the long term consequences of the way the project would introduce change are considered. It is obvious that a project is about introducing change. The question is… are the intended consequences palatable?

Consider for a moment, France Télécom and 20 suicides (that’s death) attributed to the way a major transformation was managed. Death from suicide or heart attacks is major. More subtle is the psychological and social impact of change on the people in the organization – and their families.

This dimension is rarely taken into account.

It’s pollution. Intended or not, it’s a cost that someone else bears.

In the world of IT projects and business transformation, it might be a decision that saves project effort and leaves a work-around for the business. It might be a process change that puts more responsibility onto another department without their informed agreement. It might literally be body count or injury.

The construction industry actually measures this. They are held accountable for health and safety of those on the site. They even need to keep their environment clean (the wheels of trucks leaving a site are hosed down to remove dirt so streets aren’t polluted in Singapore).

For a business seeing itself as an integrated system, one whose performance is driven by people, processes and technology, a change process that succeeds on the technological front but fails on the people front is a failure.

Certainly, long term business results from transformation are jeopardized. Few executives would like to be under the investigation at France Télécom. Likewise, few people like to be on the receiving end of ‘pathogenic’ restructuring.

Will this project succeed or fail?

The business case stacks up, the intended goals are clear, risks to results are considered. The project looks great. Yet, what is the body count? What injuries are considered ‘acceptable to health and safety’ in the workplace? Where is the project likely to create pollution in the business?

Has the project considered these? Does the organizational change charter pay adequate attention to managing these risks to results? To people? To performance?

An Organisational Change Charter defines the project’s approach to introducing change into the business from the perspective of people and processes. It dovetails with the IT Program Charter which defines expectations of the IT side of the business transformation.

Executives leading successful projects focus on people.

Rules of Engagement

It’s about respect. In all relationships. Define how people are to be respected thru-out the course of the project. This applies equally to executives, the team, partners and to people affected by the project in the organizations.

What is good (enough) for one is for all.

[A byline comment… Big projects require partners. It is a rare organization that knows so much or has spare capacity that they can run their business and transform at the same time without support. Respect operates here too. Results are a team effort. Partners are part of the team.]

Four questions to ask about Body Count and Pollution:


  • Has the project stated explicit goals (accountability) for its impact on people both in the project and the business in the Organisational Change Charter for the project?
  • Have the relevant interested parties (stakeholders) signed off on these goals?
  • Is the project plan and budget funded to do what is needed adequately?
  • Has the Results Risk Management plan documented key risks arising from high stress levels in the project team or in the organization?

Validate the responses to see that the project is prepared to recognize reality. Body count is real. Injury is real. Pollution is real.

Next consider where risks to results lie in the project team and in the business. Move the Organisational Change Charter into an effective Organizational Change Strategy.

Returning to my call as I walked past Marina Sands… ‘Have the executives sponsoring the project realized where the team is right now? And the business implications of current reality?…’

Published in MIS Asia – Will you marry me?…

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I asked as we finished our dinner. He’d cooked, I’d enjoyed. ‘Go for it’ I’d been encouraged, ‘but don’t be surprised if …’

The ultimate complex long-term personal project, marriage seems to have more success than business-IT projects: 15 per cent are in dire shape, 51 per cent are challenged. Few are real stars.

By the way, that’s business-IT projects! Depending on your definition of marriage, divorce and happiness, the figures for marriage aren’t so different. Still, I decided, that’s no reason not to try for success. There have to be ways of getting this right, I thought as I expressed my feeling to the Man-I-Love (MIL for short).

Posted as a contributing author at MIS Asia

Getting it right

Life is looking up in the bigger world. Business investment in IT is going up in Asia particularly in India and China. Those I talk with in MNCs say they are getting back into project land with a vigorous ‘let’s get things done’. It’s exciting and energising after a year when many projects were put on hold, even teams disbanded. Still, are we setting ourselves up for the same mistakes?

At the height of the last cycle, project write-offs were estimated to be US$333 billion. That’s practically a financial crisis of our own. It’s a huge capital cost – one that is unpalatable in good times is unacceptable in tighter times.

The cost of failure

Most of us know the Gartner and the Standish stats on project failure. Eighty per cent under-deliver, 33 per cent written off. It’s all out there. So when I came across Chris Sauer’s work on variations to expected project results (as measured by time, cost, scope), I couldn’t help myself. I was curious. I calculated the yield like I would any of my financial investments. I treated it like a portfolio.

With Sauer’s data from experienced project managers, the results initially look pretty good: just 9 per cent of projects were written off, 23 per cent delivered with a large variation in time/cost/scope, 60 per cent delivered within a 10 per cent margin and seven per cent exceeded expectations. These last two categories were considered ‘successful projects’. Most organisations would be proud to have projects delivering with this track record. (At least those who actually measure what they do are. Those that don’t, have no idea of what the cumulative impact of a little less than expected and a little late for a little more is to the business bottom line).

This is much better than the bad old days of the 1980s where Standish reported 33 per cent written off. Good experience project managers and advisors help reduce this cost.

If you are squeamish, skip the next few paragraphs.

Still, I thought, what is an investment worth without the functions expected? It would be like having a kitchen built and having things missing. I pressed the button (Excel did the work) and found: with the reported variations to time, cost and function, the actual business value effectively delivered was negative. Minus 27 per cent.


JA Flinn_chart


An investor expecting a return:

  • Probability of write-off or material variation in return is 33 per cent
  • Likelihood of a project being within 10 per cent of budget or time is 60 per cent
  • Overall, results as measured by a functional yield (i.e. adjusted for changes in scope) as minus 27 per cent

Do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation for your business/project:

  • What is the average project cost over-run?
  • What is the average project schedule over-run?
  • What is the average project functional shortfall?

Calculate the yield.

Would you invest based on the track record represented by your average?

A bit like marriage, a certain percentage of projects end in disappointment or more. Some are the stellar successes that I’ve seen and wish for.

The path to success

I went out and asked a group of business and IT executives what their experience and advice was. (To be open, it was fully vetted research done under the auspices of Oxford University UK and HEC, France involving executives in MNCs around the world – over 50 per cent were based in Asia or had worked in Asia). Distilled, they had six recommendations:

  1. Know your track record. Measure it and improve.
  2. Recognise that results are as much about the business as they are about IT. IT might produce a capacity, but the business chooses to use it.
  3. Proactively manage the risks to results.
  4. Invest in projects that are likely to succeed, deal with those that won’t.
  5. Have the right governance in place to make it happen.
  6. Success is a continuous process (that requires continuous attention).

On a personal front, I realise that these probably also apply to my relationship: see what works and do more of it, it takes two of us, letting issues lie just makes them harder to handle, so be aware and be proactive. In the dating stage – if it’s not right, it’s not. Lastly, have effective ways of coming to and upholding mutual agreements as well as dealing with issues. To modify a quotation, ‘a successful relationship is a journey not a station’.

As a foundation, MIL and I have trust, respect and an ability to communicate (and love) so we presume misunderstandings are innocent errors rather than intentional efforts to disrupt and annoy. It’s a good basis for business – IT project relationships too.

Hmm, I still want mine to succeed! While the executives had plenty of advice on that, it’s a topic for another time.

This article is based on Part 1: Productivity of her forthcoming book ‘The Success Health Check for IT Projects’ (Wiley 2010).

The Success HealthCheck for IT Projects

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

The Book. Wiley 2010.10 SHC Cover-3D


The Success Healthcheck for IT Projects is a practical real life based approach for executives and IT project managers who are committed to successful projects. It shows where good projects need to look if they are to become great.


  • Would you like to lift your success rates?
  • Could benefits realization from projects be improved?
  • Do some of your projects disappoint or even fail?
  • Would it benefit you and your business if you could identify those that need help early?
  • Are you curious why will all the hard work, some projects have difficulties succeeding?
  • If you answered yes to any of these questions, this book is for you.

Based on project practitioner experience and research, the Healthcheck offers tools, diagnostics and action for managing project success.


Available at Amazon. Paperback $31, Kindle $33

or at Wiley. Paperback at 12.99