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How “Improved Failure” can be used to turnaround failed or failing projects

I recently read an article on failing better.

How can we apply this concept to IT projects? As much as it is hard to admit, that we have all been through failed projects - you would not be a senior IT professional without the battle scars of failed projects. Research suggests that the failure rates for newer technologies like Bigdata, Analytics and AI projects are especially high in the astounding 60 to 85 percentage range.

Let’s dig a little deeper and try to analyze What is a project failure in the first place and what can be done to mitigate these situations and whether we can turn them around into successes.

1. User expectations – As per traditional project management any project is bound by the constraints of Time, budget, and scope. Although many projects could exceed in one or more of these dimensions but at what point can we consider it to be an abject failure to the point of complete abandonment? Not meeting user expectations – This is the single most important reason on why a project is considered a failure. What did we set out to accomplish and where did we end? And the answer comes from user adoption of a technology – if no one is using a software or an app, which took all the time and energy to design and develop, then it is absolutely the definition of failure in technology. Most important reason such a scenario could happen is if user inputs are not taken during the design and development of the product. Agile is a great way to mitigate this risk and can help by showing the product to the end user as it is being designed. But Agile is not a silver bullet and projects do fail despite using Agile methodologies.

2. Death by a thousand cuts – Some projects crash and Burn, other die by a thousand cuts. If a project is going in slow motion towards being a train wreck, there is a chance it can be saved. It takes very decisive management though. The key is for all the stakeholders to come to the realization and be honest about the situation to themselves and to each other. In such a case, the best bet is to pause all development activities and ask the core team to take a break. If there are any modules or pieces in production, the current team can be asked to support those modules and not to proceed on any further new, development. Once we take a breather, we must bring in a fresh set of eyes to clearly understand and evaluate the situation. This is where, we need to be precise and dissect the project to understand the key reason for the failure or perceived failure. Some of these reasons we have seen in the field are –

a) Skills Gap – Sometimes it is just a question of not having the correct or enough folks in the technology or in terms of being able to understand the requirements clearly or be able to move forward in the right direction. Technology changes so fast and the higher failure rate for newer technologies could be attributed to this reason as there are not enough people with very good understanding of the new technology and best way to maximize results.

b) Lack of cohesion – Most successful projects have a hallmark of everyone working together – management and technical folks as a team – sometimes there are wide gaps in their thinking, and this results in projects getting pulled in the incorrect direction.

c) Lack of a winning culture – This is where some of the intangibles come into play and is a more deeper-rooted problem to fix – has the team seen a pattern of not being rewarded properly for their prior successes (real or perceived).

d) Morale issues – Is there still any will, or determination left in the team to salvage the project and execute a turnaround. This calls for strong leadership and a lot of dedication on the part of management or the leaders within the team, group, and company etc.

3. Assuming the will still exists, some of these issues could be addressed – This is where the concept of improved failure could be applied. It is a mind shift change and the team must agree that the project has neared failure or is a failure and that is ok. How to build it up from now is the more important question. Sometimes, personnel changes could be necessary and other times augmentation and bringing in external consultants and additional talent might be required. But things cannot remain the same. It is absolutely, essential that the project is run differently, managed differently, and will take a much higher level of commitment from all parties involved. On the other hand, the rewards of such a success are much sweeter.

4. Fail fast, fail forward – This is a very important agile principle that needs to be incorporated from the beginning stages of the project. No one can predict the future, but a failure is a very distinct possibility and addressing it in the beginning is better that being caught off guard in the later stages of the project and being in a more helpless situation. Some managers are reluctant to bring up failure in a very early conversation, but it is essential that clear success metrics are defined and during the planning stages, all the worst-case outcomes should be discussed, including failure scenarios and mitigation plans put in place.

5. Lack of Transparency and open communication – This one is purely on the management. A lot of times team members are aware as to the direction where the project is headed, and if there is no culture of transparency and avenues for the team members to speak out openly, it can only result in failure. Goes back to the culture of the organization and at the project level, everyone’s opinions should be heard, and open discussion of ideas should always be encouraged.

6. Entrenched interests – As Humans, we all can get stuck on some ideas and in many cases people can get territorial and want to retain control of things at the detriment of the project and team objectives. Again, this is something a strong management should realize early on and take the necessary steps. Many times, people’s livelihood is at stake, and they will do anything to protect it. Winning organizations always find ways to motivate people to put the team and the projects interests above their own and be able to manage the egos that can prop up when working with very talented individuals.

7. Learn from mistakes – At the end of the day, sometimes we might have to cut loose of a project and stop sinking more money and resources into it. It would be good for the morale of the team to do a clear postmortem and have a very open and honest discussion and take the lessons learnt and understand that it is a collective failure and realize and draw some comfort from the fact that every failure can be viewed as a steppingstone to future success.

A few words about our company – Pacific Data is an analytics and data management company. In our experience of having completed many projects successfully, we have helped many of our clients restore and recover failing or even completely failed projects. We provide the detailed analysis and help salvage what is left of a project and save our clients’ money and resources than having to start everything from the scratch again. There is always some hidden values that can be unlocked from a large scale effort and can be used as a down payment towards the rebuild and reconstruct. Please feel free to reach out to us, in such scenarios and we can partner with you to navigate towards possible better outcomes. Best Wishes.

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