Why change fails

picture of shipyard cranes at duskI stumbled across an excellent piece on delivering large-scale projects written by Phil Leitch, one of the best technology change directors I know. It prompted me to share a talk I did recently for Change Associates on “Why change fails”.

So why is it that the hit rate for large IT projects is still so poor, with an estimated 7/10 failing to fulfil their original aspirations? Well, to jump to the punch-line, it’s because in 7/10 cases we have the wrong people executing them.

But let me back up a bit and explain how I came to that conclusion. In one of my CIO roles, we assessed our current and historic projects to distil out the factors that correlated most strongly with success or failure. From this we captured 13 factors that correlated strongly with success, which I could summarise as:

  • Were we clear on the reality and practicality of the benefits, did the requirements tie clearly to these benefits, and did we keep a tight control on scope?
  • Did we have a strong and active senior evangelist for the change, and the right people with the right skills on the project?
  • Was the solution proven, the approach fit for purpose, and did we have a short time horizon to benefits?
  • Could we make decisions swiftly and did we handle setbacks well?

Our hypothesis was that if we knew why programmes succeeded, we could target these areas specifically and eliminate failed projects. So we set about creating an operating model to institutionalize success. We also recruited experienced project managers and built the skills of our existing colleagues. Now of course when you focus on anything, it gets better, and so it did. But what was interesting was that we still had successful projects, and unsuccessful projects. We had found part of the answer, but there was still something we were missing.

When we looked again at the consistently successful projects, they were always led by the same people. What really seemed to make the difference was the ‘character’ of the handful of senior roles on the project. So could they face very challenging stakeholders and make their voice heard? Could they deal with team member underperformance decisively? Could they get a vendor CEO to take personal responsibility for delivery issues? It was partly a question of impact, but it was also more than that. Consistently successful change deliverers are smart, determined and adaptable. They know how to get things done in the organisation; they are challenging and driven, but pragmatic and flexible when they need to be. They take people with them, by great communication and by leading from the front. They build coalitions to make things happen across the organisation.

And on these critical ‘character’ areas, it seemed that no amount of training, development and mentoring could put these traits in if you didn’t have them already. And I don’t think this should surprise us. We don’t fall in the trap of thinking that everyone can be a world-class tennis player. So why should we think that on something as complex as large-scale change, that anyone can do it. Unfortunately, I think these skills are far less common than we imagine.

Why change fails

Rob works with technology start ups and leading retailers on the impact and opportunities of digital technologies

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