No matter where you live, I’m sure you could tell me stories about ‘Good IT Projects that go Bad’. If you’re lucky , they happen to a ‘friend-of-a-friend’ , or you read about them in a Newspaper. Here in Ireland, our most recent example from the Newspapers is the story of a $199 million Healthcare system . The project was cancelled after it insisted on issuing million Euro Cheques to hospital cleaners. For the record , $199 million is about the price of two small hospitals.
Looking back, It now seems obvious that the Healthcare Payroll system was destined to fail. If you were working on the project, I’m sure it felt very differently at the time. How can your projects avoid a similar fate? While IT may sometimes seem disconnected from reality, the following guidelines show that ‘Real World’ lessons still apply.
- Know what you want and stick to it. If you’re building a house and change the plans several times the builder is going to fleece you, no matter how low the initial quote was. The same goes for IT Projects - if you change your mind after the price is agreed, you’re going to pay more.
- If you don’t know what you’re doing , find a friend who does. I know very little about houses, so when I was buying my own I got a friendly surveyor to check it out. With IT projects, this ‘friend’ should be genuinely on your side, and have something to lose (e.g. financial or reputation) if things go wrong.
- Little and often is better. Like exercise, smaller projects that deliver results little but early are best. If the results are good, try a second (and third) round to add more functionality based on the feedback from users.
- It’s been all done before. Tailored suits cost a lot more than ready-made ones - and most people are happy with a ‘Good enough’ instead of ‘Perfect fit’. There are literally thousands of ‘off-the-peg’ computer systems (both commercial and open-source) ready for final alteration to what you need.
- If you don’t understand the answer, ask more questions. Thankfully the days we sat and nodded at the Doctor’s Latin words are long gone. IT Suppliers may sometimes speak a different language, but if they can’t explain what they’re talking about in English that you understand, the chances are they’re trying to hide something.
- Don’t build on sand. Like houses , projects need good foundations. For IT Projects , the good foundations are sound knowledge of the Business Processes being coded into the system. Changing processes and changing IT systems at the same time is like building on sand.
- Sometimes the tortoise wins the race. Unless your Company’s entire business model is built around being the very first to market, then being a tortoise and letting others race ahead has very big advantages. Not only can you learn from other people’s mistakes, but the chances are you’ll get it at a much reduced cost - For example websites now cost a fraction of what they did during the dot.com boom.
- Use a safety net. When building houses, often the first thing to go up is scaffolding, for safety reasons. The equivalent safety net in IT is called ‘Unit Tests’. Not only do they help you get there faster, but they let you know if you’ve broken something you’ve already built.
- Be a good poker player. Good poker players never give away valuable cards. For IT projects, owning all cards mean just that - make sure that you have full rights to the solution so that you can still move tables and use a different supplier. Even if you never make the move, knowing that you can is an effective bargaining chip.
And finally …
When you are in a hole, stop digging. The decision to call a halt to the projects was no doubt a difficult one, and is to be applauded. Too often, the temptation is to keep on going and hope things will turn out right. Recognising problems at an early stage means there is more chance of being able to fix them.
Do you have any advice on how to stop ‘Good IT Projects going Bad?’