IT projects are harder than climbing Everest

Do Everest conquerors have a special something that IT managers do not possess when it comes to successful projects?

To understand the challenges of IT projects, let us delve into the grey-bearded world of IT research. Be reassured that we are not the only concerned souls. 

Way back in 2004, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT carried out an academic study of project failure and found, to its dismay, that only one in eight IT projects can be considered successful – defined as meeting the original time, cost and quality requirements criteria. 

However, it made no comment as to whether any business benefits were ultimately achieved, so we have no idea of the full horror of the business outcomes – or probably more accurately the lack of them.

In short, many of what the study might call “successful projects” may not have even resulted in anything useful being delivered at all. In my experience, the measurement of business benefits after IT projects are completed rarely ever happens. 

Years later, incoming leaders will find themselves perplexed by what appear to be an array of net-negative systems that do more harm than good, together with an unhealthy collection of dogs' breakfasts that the previous incumbents have left for them. 

Nobody should be surprised. This has happened in every organisation where I’ve worked. It is often the biggest companies who boast the most frightening, smelliest messes in their odorous cupboards. This is otherwise known as the “systems portfolio”.

Totting up what must have been an increasingly depressing set of numbers showing a plethora of disasters and disappointments, the BCS study estimated the cost of IT project failure across the European Union was about €142bn. This is truly stunning – €142bn is about the same size as the Greek banks’ liability to all other nations in the Eurozone in 2012.

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And there is plenty more corroborating evidence that this is happening all around the world. Nobody is immune. 

The Standish Chaos Reports, US National Institute of Standards and Technology and the European Services Strategy Unit all report woeful success rates in IT projects. Even the most optimistic reports on the web suggest that barely one-third of IT projects get remotely close to doing what they were supposed to do.

One study by Oxford University in 2003 revealed only 16% of the projects it examined were “successful”, while 10% had been “abandoned”. The remaining 74% it described with beautiful understatement as “challenged”. 

There are lots of ways that projects can be “challenged”, but in my experience they generally fall into two categories. Some will be in the “we are completely out of control but we daren’t admit it” grouping, while the remainder make up the more whimsically appealing “we are completely out of control, but we are blissfully ignorant about it" category.

Which brings us neatly to Mount Everest. Surely conquering Everest must be tougher than implementing a run-of-the-mill accounting software package in a sleepy corporate company in the Midlands of England? Not so it appears. The statistics are quite alarming.

Between the first conquest of Everest in 1953 and the end of 2010, there were 5,104 successful ascents to the summit, and 3,142 individuals made it to the top. Since 1922, when good records began, there have been 219 fatalities, a rate of 4.3 deaths for every 100 successful ascents. 

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After analysing the data, Discovery Channel writer Hannah Harris estimated that about one in four climbers make it to the summit, and – perhaps more importantly for them – get safely down again.

Putting this data together with the Oxford University research, we have a score of: Everest mountaineers 25%, and IT project teams 16%; whereby we have to gracefully declare that our IT project teams have been soundly beaten.

Maybe the Everest conquerors have a special something our IT project managers do not possess? Probably not. More likely is their planning skills have been raised to levels rarely seen in sleepy offices peppered with warm cubes, expensive coffee machines and too much email. Why would this be?

A short examination gives us some clues. For climbers, the prospect of slipping off the sheer wall of ice of Everest’s notorious Lhotse Face, which rises two miles from its base, only to clatter to a horrible death on the rocks below possibly adds an incentive. 

Then there are temperatures of minus 40ºF. Or if you are not extremely fit as well as being well organised, you can look forward to collapsing through exhaustion as a result of having to breathe 90 times a minute to stay alive. 

Alternatively, might it just be that an Everest ascent will cost about $100,000 of your own money. Whether it is death or destitution, all are great motivators for any budding project planner.

Sadly, IT project failures have stubbornly persisted throughout human history and will doubtless persist as long as there are people around who want to get stuff done and there are people who are dumb enough to try to do it for them.

Jonathan Mitchell (pictured) is a consultant and IT leader with more than 30 years' experience. He is chairman of Harvey Nash's Global CIO Practice, and was previously corporate development director and CIO at Rolls-Royce. This article is an excerpt from his book, Staying the course as a CIO: How to overcome the trials and challenges of IT leadership.

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