I had one more interesting conversation and almost interview on the way back from SXSW – on the plane from Austin to Atlanta.
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!
Noise in the basement is playing in the Road to Nightfall series March 24 at Rhythm and Brews in Chattanooga, TN. We’re excited to play somewhere besides the basement!
Please join us if you can; arrive early and stay ’till the end because YOUR VOTE MATTERS MOST!
We are competing for a chance to headline at the 2011 Nightfall Concert Series…which would be all kinds of awesome!
South by Southwest Interactive 2011, Austin TX (SXSW)
I keep up with new technologies and trends by reading voraciously. Some of it is even relevant.
This year, I decided to get out of my home office and go be there, go meet people, actually have…conversations.
I know, radical, right? Probably a complete waste of time and money. Take a week off of work, put everything on hold, run up the company credit card. Get out of my comfortable workaholic man-cave and swim upstream like a deranged salmon. Scary.
Totally worth it.
South by Southwest is “spring break for geeks”. It consists of film, music, and “interactive” segments. The Interactive segment was the attraction: hundreds of sessions, keynotes, panel discussions, lounges, and meetups about technology. This is where Twitter and FourSquare happened. This is where venture capitalists gather in private parties to see secret demos of The Next Big Thing. This is where A-list bloggers go to just hang out, be seen, or in some cases, not be seen. This is where fascinating authors go to promote their new book, explain their new book, or occasionally think about creating a new book.
I decided to interview people for a blog with no purpose and no readers for several reasons, but primarily to force me to start conversations. My natural tendency would lean more towards mere observation. But this is SXSW Interactive, not SXSW Passive Observation! So I jotted down a few questions on the plane to Texas, and resolved to start as many conversations as I could politely engage.
Hook ‘Em With a Great Line
The approach would be honest: this is a new blog, it has no readers, no one knows or cares who I am, and that’s ok.
“Would you like to be interviewed for a blog with no readers?” I asked.
Everyone I asked said “Yes”.
And that is what makes SXSW so great. The people.
But SXSW Jumped the Shark!
I found it easy enough to avoid the marketing ponds and irrelevant festivities, and I’m not into the party scene. Instead, I soaked up a lot of great information, went to many informative sessions, met tons of fascinating people, and interviewed several of them. The interviews will be published just as fast as I can get them transcribed. Subscribe to the mailing list or feed in the sidebar on the right if you want to be notified when they are published.
In the Beginning…
I keep up with the world, especially the technology world, via the Internet. I travel infrequently, work primarily from my office in the basement of my house, and earn a comfortable living doing what I love: helping people improve their businesses, creating new products and technologies, designing and implementing software systems, doing technical research, writing, thinking, and providing consulting advice to clients. I am fortunate to do what I love for a living, and am blessed with a family that supports and understands this odd calling.
Out of the Garden…
But lately I’ve been thinking that I wanted to get out and actually meet some of the fascinating people that were doing great things, instead of just reading about it. I’m not talking about the famous – though I did meet a few of those, and found them to be remarkably human and fragile just like the rest of us. I’m talking about the up-and-comers, the enormously intense twenty-somethings rushing around the SXSWi sessions in between meetups, check-ins, emails, and working on laptops in corners crouched by electrical outlets.
I feel these are kindred spirits, accelerated by the tools and trends of the time. These are my (techno) peeps, and this is their interviews.
SXSWi unexpectedly provided a minor journey in self-rediscovery and personal growth, which may go into a forthcoming book. There are also several anecdotes around the interviews
that were not part of the interview itself.
Want to read about my 1st time experience at SXSWi?
Click HERE to read about my extraordinary journey.
Did you go to SXSW 2011? Did you enjoy it? Did you jump some sharks, or find new truth and purpose? Tell me what you found in the comments below!