WANTED – Rottweiler to prevent major IT project failures

By Sam Simpson

The Home Office has today been told by a tribunal to pay more than £223m to Raytheon Systems Limited after it was found to have unlawfully ended the £1bn e-borders contract. Having cancelled the contract with Raytheon in 2010 citing delays and lack of functionality, The Home Office re-packaged elements and has apparently delivered some of the originally scoped functionality.

It’s difficult to see if the £500m+ spent on this endeavour has delivered value for money, but I’m sure no one would say that this has been a good experience for the tax payer or for that matter the people responsible for managing the project for the Home Office.

There are far too many examples of large projects that fail in both the public and private sectors. I can’t help thinking that the government does get a bit of a rough deal because there is much more transparency when things go wrong in the public sector. According to research from the largest global study on IT projects conducted by the Major Programmes Unit at the Said Business School, there is very little difference between project failure in the public and private sectors.

I was talking to Alex Budzier recently, who is a Researcher at Oxford University’s Said Business School and worked on the study I mentioned above. He said “our research shows that 18% of all IT projects are Black Swans which run more than 200% over budget or schedule. It is imperative to prevent these outliers from happening and to put in place measures to capture them early”.
18%!!! Nearly one in five projects could potentially wreck your career if you’re charged with running it. This statistic shocked me when I first heard it. How can that be when we have mature methodologies such as Prince2, PMBOK, Scrum etc. for managing and governing projects?

Based on the work we’ve been doing on Programme Assurance and turnaround services I’m convinced that methodologies for managing projects aren’t the issue. The issue is people! There is a whole body of recent research that highlights universal psychological traits as the main project killing culprits. Optimism Bias, The Planning Fallacy and organisational politics are main reasons why projects fail in my humble opinion.

So what can you do to mitigate against these complex human spanners in the works? Well my own hard earned experience and my learned friends and clever colleagues say that you need to start the project properly, get external benchmarks for your forecasts, define and monitor benefits throughout and beyond the project completion and put in place a Black Swan early warning system. Maybe a big Rottweiler in the office would do the job, who knows.