Three truths of IT success

Despite methodologies and tools to increase success, up to 70 percent of IT projects fail. The real keys are people, collaboration, alignment, and value creation.

Despite industry-wide use of methodologies, tools, and other techniques, some researchers say that up to 70 percent of IT projects fail.

The persistence of high failure rates suggests that IT projects are more complicated and difficult to complete successfully than we generally recognize. The common view that projects are merely a bundle of implementation steps does not sufficiently address underlying business, organizational, and human dimensions essential to success.

Traditional approaches to prevent failure typically rely on systematic checklists and work flows that describe and govern how a project proceeds from conception to completion. These methodologies are important to coordinate members of the project team, ensure consistency, and maintain efficiency. In other words, they are keep everyone associated with a project organized and on the same page.

However, while being organized is important, it does not create success or drive the business value that really matters.

To dive into this issue more deeply, I spoke with Steve Romero, an expert on project methodologies and IT governance, who works for project portfolio management vendor CA. While acknowledging the importance of methodology, Steve believes excellent process alone is not enough:

Almost all sophisticated organizations apply great approaches to managing IT projects, using methodologies such Prince2 and PMI's Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Despite the prevalence of such methodologies, failure rates will remain intolerably high until organizations realize there is more to ensuring project success than a methodology.

To assure success, organizations must adopt a genuine end-to-end process perspective in regard to IT projects. This perspective begins with the very first conception of business need and ends with changes to the business actions and behaviors required to actually realize the value of the new technology.

Process frameworks (such as IT Governance, Project and Portfolio Management, Project Management methodology, CMMI, ITIL, and so on) are important, but do not guarantee project success.

In truth, IT project success requires an acute understanding of organizational transformation and human behavior.

As Steve suggests, traditional methodologies form a necessary, but not sufficient, infrastructure for achieving project success.

It's time for everyone associated with IT -- including business folks, technical people, vendors, consultants, and geeks -- to recognize the limitations of process alone and understand three truths about successful IT:

  1. Value creation defines success. Contrary to popular belief, even late or over-budget projects can be massively successful if they deliver sufficient value back to the organization. However, the organization must first possess a clear, shared understanding of why the project is important.
  2. Collaboration is essential. By definition, successful cross-boundary initiatives involve active information sharing and communication across information silos and segments. Managing unspoken expectations is hard, especially when project stakeholders belong to different organizations with varying definitions of success.
  3. People matter most. Although the phrase "IT / business alignment" is overused, consistent and systematic communication are critical. To avoid the twin evils of gridlock and denial, successful project teams find ways to actively engage multiple stakeholder perspectives despite these differences.

My take. In my experience at Asuret, intensively studying drivers of IT success and failure, it's clear the real keys are people, collaboration, alignment, and value creation.

Although these three truths of IT success may appear simple, persistent and high failure rates related to virtually all areas of enterprise software demonstrate we have much work remaining.

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