IT project failure? How bad news might just save your project and business

Organisations attempts at successfully implementing IT projects continue to struggle and fail.  Industry research indicates that large IT projects are typically 45% over budget and deliver 56% less business value than originally promised.  There are a whole raft of reasons contributing to these poor results. In this article I would like to focus on on in particular: How adverse project variances are managed through the project and business management hierarchies.  IT project failure is an everyday occurrence.   Based on the evidence, a different approach needs to be considered.

Control? What control?

Control systems theory – which deals with the operation of dynamic systems and how their behaviors are modified by feedback – underpins how many systems and processes are able to be self correcting in the face of rapid change.

Simply put – without timely and effective feedback systems that drive appropriate responses, IT project failure is inevitable.

IT project failure ? The messenger wasn’t shot, just promoted

This feedback process is crucial to the success of both IT projects and the long term survival of organisations in a rapidly changing and competitive world. Whether in the form of unfavourable variances, mistakes or opportunities for improvement, the effective and efficient processing of feedback should guide leadership decisionmaking.

Feedback processes should underpin adaptable, self-correcting and learning organisations.  However, the reality is often different.

Some call it ‘politics’, others just how things work in hierarchical organisations, the harsh realities of being the bearer of bad tidings can have profound unintended consequences for any project if inappropriately handled.

Things can get a lot worse when the effects of short termism are combined with the management of bad news within organisations

The reluctance to deliver bad news at work is a well researched and understood human trait known as the MUM effect. How this plays out in avoiding IT project failure may ultimately seal the project’s fate..

Tragedies, such as the Challenger Shuttle disaster, resulting from a combination of the MUM effect and short term focus on ‘getting the job done’ are well documented.

For many organisations, failure is not as dramatic as the Shuttle disaster, and can occur progressively over time.  For this reason all business leaders should be acutely aware of the intrinsic value and risks associated with the reporting of bad news within their organisation or project governance processes.

Your Project and organisation: The need for speed

Having to respond to constantly shifting customer needs while remaining competitive is driving an increasing focus by leadership on the short term.

Compelling evidence is appearing to support the fact that in many instances, leadership myopia erodes long term business performance, elevates risk2 , and decreases organisational lifespans.

We can’t deal with tomorrow’s challenges today.   Really?

The cumulative effect of these and other changes (such as being part of a 24×7 marketplace) is that today’s business leaders have had to, out of necessity, increasingly focus on the short term – simply because things are happening at a faster rate.  This leads to short termism, a term used to describe the undue focus in the short term at the expense of the longer term.

One consequence of this progressive – and therefore not always noticed – trend towards short termism is a reduced tolerance for dealing with  issues that have little to no direct impact on the task at hand.

After all, why spend costly time and effort now on something that is in the future, when there are acute and compelling short term performance and financial targets to hit?

Problem is, with the focus of finite resources on ‘getting the job done’ and in meeting the short term operational demands of the organisation,  the golden opportunity  of  assessing what is working well, what is not and holistically assessing opportunities for improvement can be missed.

It is a well researched and acknowledged known3 fact that, unless mandated, many business and IT projects are not routinely subject to a post implementation effectiveness review – further limiting the opportunities for identifying opportunities for improvement. This is a golden opportunity for learning on how to avoid future IT project failure

Dealing with risks of asymmetric information and an unhappy organisational culture

Demonstrating sustained effective decisionmaking at all levels of an organisation depends on a complex suite of factors such as organisational structure, leadership capabilities, personality types, skills, experience, insights, analytics, risk, anxiety, incentive schemes, self interest or self preservation.

Now add to this mix the potential for decisionmaking based on incomplete information due to the MUM effect – that is, information, which if known by the decisionmakers at the time would have changed the decision outcome – may have resulted in a better outcome.

Successful leaders who are able to both:

  • Sustain a high degree of positive, constructive employee and manager engagement, and
  • Put in place leadership practices and business processes to ensure the MUM effect is minimised across  the organisation

will be better equipped to sustain business performance at every level, improve the organisation’s ability to adapt to change and ultimately contribute to the sustained creation and protection of value.

Question is: What is your contribution to making this a reality?


1 Pfeffer, J., (2015), “Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time” Harper Collins (Finalist for the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year); Gitsham M., et al.,“Developing the Global Leader of Tomorrow”, Ashridge Business School, July 2009, ashridge.org.uk; Gurdjian, P., Halbeisen, T., Lane, K., (2014) “Why leadership-development programs fail”, McKinsey Quarterly January 2014; Gahan, P., et.al., 2016. “Leadership at Work: Do Australian leaders have what it takes?” Melbourne:Centre for Workplace Leadership, University of Melbourne.
2 Gonzalez A, André P. Board Effectiveness and Short Termism. Journal Of Business Finance & Accounting. January 2014;41(1/2):185-209.
3 Gwillim., D., et.al. (2005), “The politics of post-implementation reviews”, Information Systems Journal 15, 307–319. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.