Eight generalisations on IT-related projects and programmes

This list is part of the evidence from Computer Weekly which was published by the Work and Pensions Sub-Committee of the House of Commons, as part of its report on the management of IT projects. Although our paper was written with Whitehall departments in mind, several of the points may be relevant to private sector projects.

1) Better guidelines and advice will not prevent IT disasters. What are needed: tough decisions, direct language, and the ability to listen to warnings that are “off message”.

2) Departments will sometimes not take tough decisions when serious problems emerge because they fear bad publicity. This provides the perfect breeding ground for IT disasters.

3) Openness is the first casualty of a project that is in serious trouble. Sometimes, it seems, ministers are not always aware of the seriousness of IT problems within their departments. But if ministers cannot always discover the breadth and depth of problems on major projects within their departments, who can?

4) Serious problems are sometimes categorised as teething troubles. Yet computer projects are largely about solving problems, sometimes serious ones. If problems cannot be faced up to unless circumstances force recognition of them, options for resolution may be limited to disaster avoidance.

5)Do not expect suppliers to always tell the whole truth. Those suppliers that do suspect they will not win the contract. In the UK civil service, and particularly among IT suppliers, criticism is associated wrongly with disaffection. Until optimism is checked by realism and scepticism, and constructive criticism is encouraged, we should expect project failures to continue.

6) Split projects into phases that can be delivered in a maximum of six months, with each phase able to work on a stand-alone basis. So if integration fails there is still much value in the project. To insist that everything is fully integrated is to court disaster.

7) As suggested above, accountability or rather the lack of it is the major challenge facing the UK public sector. Whereas a fear of failure often drives success in the private sector, there is not such a fear of failure in the public sector. When heads do roll, it is usually the wrong ones: those who have been critical of the project.

8) End-users must buy into the project. If a system is imposed on end-users the risk of failure is greatly increased. Departments sometimes think they have buy-in of end-users whereas they may have the support of groups of end-users who are so familiar with the project that they have emotional equity in its success and cease to be objective.

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