Why Do IS Projects Fail? (Hint: You probably already know the answer!)

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/Viruses.jpg cc2.0

An article in MIT’s Sloan Management Review (http://sloanreview.mit.edu/projects/embracing-digital-technology/) describes why IT projects so often fail to achieve their intended outcomes. The explanation emphasizes leadership failure specifically, but I believe a closer read really points to three core problems: (1) failure to properly define requirements, (2) failure to thoroughly engage users in creating the new systems and operational processes, and (3) failure to provide top management support (in terms of sufficient resources, active change management, and/or inspiring vision).

When I talk about this subject to business executives, and lay out the three core problems leading to IT project failure (or, conversely when I explain that the three factors most frequently linked to IT project success are clear requirements, engaged users and supportive managers), they are never surprised. The fact is that they already know — whether from firsthand experience or instinctively — that these three factors are essential to failure or success. But knowing a thing is not enough. To experience new outcomes, behaviour must also change. Requirements must be discussed, debated, clarified, and committed to by all parties. Users must be invited and then deeply and authentically engaged in the design, development and implementation of the system. Senior managers must genuinely and transparently commit to funding, actively and personally engage in problem-solving as spectacular agents of change, and cast a compelling and convincing picture of the future.

In practice, when it comes to IT projects, these successful behaviours are exceedingly rare. When confronted with a new technology-enabled opportunity, business leaders frequently assume that technical expertise is the all-important trump card, and then automatically defer to their technology specialists. This is a mistake! Technical expertise is necessary for project success, yet the critical factors associated with success are MANAGERIAL, not TECHNOLOGICAL. Analysts and engineers rarely possess the requisite managerial and leadership skills needed to drive a successful IT project to completion. (After all, most of them purposely chose an educational path designed to design and build technical “depth” skills, not managerial “breadth” skills.)

So, it turns out the answer is simple, and hard. Non-technical business managers must seriously roll up their leadership sleeves, and do what they already know how to do: manage.