I have noticed three fundamental patterns in IT project failures over the years in my custom software project consulting, and though the consultant often takes the blame it is not always his/her fault. Each pattern is reflected on both sides of the consultant+client equation. Projects with one or more of these patterns are practically guaranteed to fail. Watching it happen is like watching a train wreck in slow-motion.
All of these patterns can be prevented and/or fixed with honest discussion and objective analysis.
1. Unrealistic Expectations
- The client expects the consultant to magically solve all of their problems without further input beyond the initial consultation session.
- The consultant expects the client to tell them everything relevant, and fails to ask the appropriate and serious/hard questions.
- I call this the “fairy godmother” problem, as each side expects the other to magically know when and how to rescue the other. Only continuous, quality communication and honest answers to difficult questions will resolve problems. Most of the time, the problem the client thinks they have is not the real problem, but merely a symptom of an underlying problem. Treating only the symptom results in eventual failure, as new symptoms manifest. Mutual understanding of the problem and the solution is required for success, especially the goal of the solution. If the solution has no quantifiable goal, there is no way to know when it is complete and no way to know that it is correct. Relationships like this often end in a finger-pointing death-spiral, with both sides having become so heavily invested in being “right” that viewpoints fossilize and saving face becomes a priority instead of solving the real problem. It is not unusual for this situation to result in expending a lot of effort trying to solve the wrong problem!
2. Unqualified Participants
- The consultant takes on an assignment for which they have no particular expertise.
- The client puts people in charge – often a committee – that has no fundamental understanding of the issues or stake in the outcome.
- When this situation occurs by accident, I call it the “empty suit” problem. When it occurs on purpose, it is far more insidious; I call it the “vampire” problem. When the consultant is an empty suit, success cannot be delivered. Instead, the consultant attempts to prolong the project until the budget and participants are exhausted, or the consultant magically acquires the necessary expertise. If the consultant goes into the commitment knowing that success is impossible, the empty suit problem becomes the vampire problem. When the client is an empty suit – or a committee of them – making decisions becomes a near impossibility and the project stagnates. Or worse, decisions are made that have no bearing on the technical reality of the project. In all cases, huge sums of money can be wasted before the project is killed. But when both sides are empty suits, the project can go on so long that it drains the life out of the company.
3. Misaligned incentives
- The client has no particular incentive for the project to succeed; in many cases, they have no idea what success would even look like.
- The consultant has no incentive for the project to succeed, and cannot (or will not) get the client to paint even a rough picture of success.
- This situation is common when committees are running a project. Endless rounds of meetings, RFPs, and vendor presentations result in no decision and no action, because there is no incentive for the committee to commit to a decision, and great risk if they “guess wrong”. When the consultant’s incentives are not tied to project success, the temptation to turn into a vampire – even if not an empty suit – can be overwhelming. There is nothing more frustrating to a consultant than working with a client who has no incentive to succeed, and vice-versa.
Combinations of these patterns are common, e.g. a client with unrealistic expectations hires an unqualified consultant, and they structure the project with misaligned incentives. This is a sure-fire recipe for an long, drawn-out, expensive failure!
What combinations or other patterns of project failure have you observed? Fire away in the comments. If you managed to recognize the pattern and avoid failure, tell us how you did it!
Drive a Stake in it
So how do you prevent the deadly embarace of empty suit and vampire? The answer is simple and direct: drive a stake in it.
Situations like these are often complicated and interrelated. For example, a committee with no incentive or deadline to act and little technical qualification may be quite content to bleed money to vampires until the original issue either goes away on its own or becomes someone else’s problem.
To prevent this, create a reasonable but short deadline (on both sides of the table) for a definitive action. Name a specific result, or concrete plan that must be produced. This may not eliminate the empty suits and vampires completely, but it will limit the damage and delays.
A measurable/testable result by a specific date can be used as a stake in the ground to provide an anchor for the project. This anchor serves as:
- a short-term target/goal
- a feasibility test of a proposed solution
- a competency test of those involved
- a visible measure of progress
- and a deterrent to ‘analysis paralysis’.
Example: a committee formed to create an Enterprise Service Bus architecture for the company may be directed to implement a pilot project in one department within the first 6 months and provide certain relevant measures of throughput. It must be okay for the committee to take action and even to fail, as long as they learn something useful from the process that will improve the next decision/action. Otherwise, the path of least resistance and least risk will default to studying the problem indefinitely.
Prevent Horror Stories
Horror stories of consulting gigs large and small gone awry abound. When the project becomes a deadly embrace, the end result is often lawsuits, bad publicity, and discorporation. Nobody wins.
Instead, speak honestly and carry a stake!