Complex IT projects need special care

Information Technology projects are the long shots of business and government. If you launch a Google search for “most IT projects fail” it only takes 0.36 seconds to produce 23,000,000 hits. There’s an uncomplicated reason why that number is so large: most information technology projects end up as disappointments.

Failures are so endemic that, as a recent Deloitte study noted, they are expected. There is even a name for it: Project Risk. Some are just late or over budget, but many more fail to deliver the results promised despite carloads of money and work hours poured into them.

IT covers an open range of systems and concepts — ranging from rudimentary data processing to artificial intelligence. The scope of IT, in fact, is one of the reasons that the failure rate is so high. Projects become so complex that they overshoot the ability, and the budget, to identify and test all of the interconnections. Most of all, they outdistance our ability to plan and manage them.

The basic types of IT projects are these:

• Automating a manual process.

• Integrating a set of independent IT systems

• Changing an IT system’s underlying technology

• Updating an existing IT system.

• Converting data base and/or data collection systems to support analytics

• Supporting decision-making in operations, marketing, and finance.

These system descriptions often overlap, of course, and within each type there are many variations. For those reasons, along with personal changes each time, each project is different to some extent, and that, by itself, is the source of many problems.

Computers are everywhere today, and the initial automation of a manual process is not as common as it once was. It can still be an issue, though, for many, if not most, startup companies as they grow. When computers first became available the first target for automation was obvious: payroll. It had the characteristics that the earlier computers were really good at: consistent, repetitive mathematical calculations; and the preservation of financial records.

Today’s computers are capable of more sophisticated operations but it still pays to devote attention to the basics of consistency and record preservation. Record preservation may sound like a boring detail but it is crucial element of financial and forensic audits as well as error correction. And, even more important in today’s world, it is an important element of system security.

Today’s IT systems can be very, very complex, which places even more demands on system designers and project teams. Take heart, though, for although there are no templates that will guarantee success for your project, there are some things you as the CEO or manager can do to avoid most of the reasons for failure..

The most important thing to do is decide what you want the project to accomplish and when you want it accomplished. If these two things are not compatible, the project will very likely fail.

In general, it is more effective to let what you want done drive the schedule. As one CEO watching over an IT project I once worked on wisely put it, “I’d rather get it right than get it right now.”

As experienced managers know, most business projects can be moved faster by motivation and management attention. IT projects, though, are often resistant to this kind of push. The underlying reason is that the number of connections in software-driven systems overwhelms our ability to anticipate them.

The general rule for IT project success, then, is the same rule that mothers have traditionally used for family meal preparation. When the whole family comes home late because of bad weather or a ball game, you don’t start thawing out a frozen turkey. You turn to canned soups, frozen dinners, mac-and-cheese or something prepared earlier.

In an IT project, the more important the time line is to you the more the project should be based on pre-packaged software, off-the shelf technology and experience-rated hardware. Most businesses can do this and lower the odds of disappointing results.

This basic decision won’t automatically make your IT project a success but it will eliminate one major source of failures. And that is the approach to take to turn the odds in your favor.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a column for the monthly Herald Business Journal.

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