10 Ways to Avoid Screwing Everything Up

By Malcolm Slovin

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Information technology has been a part of our lives for almost four decades. While we’ve seen dramatic decreases in cost and increases in capabilities, we are still faced with fragmented architectures, failed investments and consistently delayed projects. What have we learned from our successes and what have we learned from our mistakes? How can your organization better structure its processes for developing and updating information technology strategy?

Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it, said George Santayana, many years before the development of technology strategy. With that in mind, here are some of the most common mistakes that wise CIOs and IT managers can learn from:

Mistake 1: Identifying new technology and trying to develop ways to apply it to your organization - Experience shows us that projects succeed or fail based on their alignment with business requirements. Many times organizations have tried to “back-end” technology plans by attempting to match them with elusive prospective business gains. Hardware and software vendors are notorious in their encouragement of this. While technology often presents opportunities for altering business capabilities, linkages must be carefully analyzed and pilot business metrics defined.

Mistake 2: Assuming that project costs include hardware and/or software only - Many projects run over budget as a result of incomplete estimation. Ensure that any proposed project includes all the costs through project implementation and maintenance, including those that are both direct and indirect. Estimates of project cost range from 7-10 times the cost of the software or hardware alone.

Typical project costs often include supporting system and application software and hardware as well as training. Don’t forget software maintenance (frequently 15 % of product cost) as well as the human costs of implementing new programs. A frequently forgotten cost is the loss of productivity during the learning curve of system implementation.

Mistake 3: Considering only the technological implications of proposed initiatives - The IT implementation landscape is littered with failed projects that underestimated the impact of technology projects on organizational processes, metrics, reporting structures, customer perceptions and employee morale. Technology is best considered as a component of the strategic triumvirate of process and culture. Attempting to implement a new technology without considering the implications to supporting mechanisms often dooms an initiative to failure.

Mistake 4: Not identifying and implementing risk mitigation scenarios -New projects, like new relationships, often begin with rosy scenarios only minimally infused with cognizance of potential risks. While this enthusiasm can help drive the momentum of project success, it often does not prepare the organization for the risks likely to be encountered along a project route.

A good project implementation plan should try to identify the risks to project success; making sure to include non-technical risks such as vendor viability, process target resistance, and potential changes to organizational strategic variables such as competitive pressures and reduction of resources.

Mistake 5: Not learning from (and continuing to fund) poorly performing projects - Many organizations have two kinds of metrics: stringent metrics about project outcome expectations that precede project funding and project efficiency metrics that commence after project funding. Without active efforts to compare expected to actual business results, the organization’s project selection process remains stagnant.

Almost all project selection methodologies can benefit from post-project audits that improve future selection efforts by actively incorporating lessons learned. This helps the organization prune efficient but not effective projects as it improves future project selections. It’s crucial that this effort be managed in a fault-free environment. Blame-gaming discourages frank assessments and attributions of project success.

Mistake 6: Inadequate communication with business staff - Technicians often have a limited view of communication targets to include only other technicians and organizational management. It’s often necessary to appeal to a wider audience in order to build support (and minimize resistance) for the new project. Often forgotten constituencies include functional management, functional staff and indirectly impacted staff.

Business-directed communication should include the expected business results of the project, impact matrices including schedule of expected changes for all relevant stakeholders, and summary project status. Communications should be targeted for each stakeholder class with technical jargon kept to a minimum for all but technical audiences.

Mistake 7: Failing to integrate new systems, processes and technologies with existing investments - Print off a comprehensive systems and software list from any fairly large organization and you will see a hodge-podge of architectures, languages, databases and telecommunication protocols. This is most likely the result of development efforts undertaken at different points in time when different generations of technologies were available.

While it is impossible to perfectly anticipate the future, a modular architecture that provides flexible integration of these systems together with an adaptable growth path for future technologies is crucial. This architecture should be updated on a regular basis as new architectural tools and technologies become available.

Mistake 8: Inadequate documentation and knowledge management - There are often two kinds of project documentation: business focused pre-funding documentation and technically focused post funding documentation.

Technology strategy would be improved by reworking both types.

Project nomination documentation should include measurable business metrics that can be audited and updated based upon results. Post-funding documentation should include detailed records of all changes to processes, related applications, and databases so that those people not actively involved in the project are able to easily track the sources of failures that may occur long after project implementation is complete. Technology strategy knowledge often leaves an organization in the head (or the files) of the person in charge of a specific project selection or implementation.Mistake 9: Over-centralization of IT functions - As organizations have recognized the value of technology, many have restructured around the CIO function, providing large budgets and even larger expectations to technology managers. While this creates an opportunity for standardization and synergy, a centralized IT function is often focused more on efficiency than corporate effectiveness.

Any central IT function must have active outreach programs to business groups to constantly improve the project selection, requirements identification, project metric determination and project management functions.

Mistake 10: Enabling ‘rogue’ IT projects through over-decentralization of the IT function - Organizations whose centralized IT functions are not meeting the needs of the business areas often find themselves with "unofficial" technology (i.e., shadow IT, rogue projects and, now, stealth cloud) efforts funded and managed by their business areas. While such projects are more likely to achieve their business metrics, they can suffer from lack of integration with other efforts. Costs, both human and systems, for such rogue projects are often duplicative. Rogue IT organizations are often a valuable aid in improving an organization’s technology health by focusing attention on ways that technology business service can be improved.

A framework for improvement

Learning lessons from these common IT mistakes is vital to avoiding future missteps. Here are three specific things that every CIO and IT manager can do right now to make their IT strategy more effective and more efficient:

1. Assess and improve your project alignment processes. Do you have post-project audits and an experienced-based, business metric centric project selection structure? Do you know which investments have led to your biggest (and smallest) business gains? What have you learned about selecting projects? How have you applied this knowledge?

2. Check the integration of technology in your organization. Do you anticipate and plan for process and culture changes needed for project success? Is your architecture modular to enable flexible growth? Can new projects take advantage of data and applications that preceded them?

3. Improve project management to better serve your business areas. Assess requirements analysis and project communication efforts to see how they can better serve the business areas. Check business line satisfaction with central IT. Identify rogue projects that may be symptomatic of larger problems.

Improving your organization’s approaches for alignment, integration and project management can significantly improve the success of your information technology efforts. Simple ways to begin are in the processes and metrics that surround project selection and assessment. Begin post project audits to improve knowledge management and documentation. Include in every project nomination and/or implementation plan sections for risk mitigation and project-reuse (mandated inclusion of previous project tools and or results). Identify your organization’s own lessons learned and ensure that they are incorporated in your metrics and processes.

This article does not touch on all common IT mistakes and certainly does not include all possible remedies. However, constantly assessing the relationship between technology, process and culture is key to learning from and avoiding IT mistakes. Review the effectiveness of IT as seen through the eyes of the business and through the existence of rogue projects for a leaner, more effective IT strategy.

Malcolm Slovin is vice president for EM&I, which offers innovative solutions in the areas of strategy, governance and engineering.