Some reasons why IT projects fail

© Alex Messenger -
© Alex Messenger -

Having yesterday been somewhat disparaging about the efforts of others to delineate the reasons for BI projects failing, I realised that I had recently put together just such a list myself. By way of context, this was in response to being asked for some feedback in a subject area where I had little expertise and experience. Instead of bailing out of answering, I put together a more general response, a lightly edited and mildly expanded version of which appears below.

Please note that there is no claim on my part that this list is exhaustive; in common with all humans, us IT types can be very creative in finding new ways to fail, I am sure there are some out there that I have not come across yet.

  1. The objectives of the project not being clear. By this I mean the business objectives. There are two layers of problems, the actual business issues may not be understood well enough to form an effective response and, if the business knows what it needs to do in general terms, IT may not fully appreciate this for a number of reasons (mostly down to lack of communication) or may be unable to translate this into a suitable programme of work (possibly because of a lack of knowledge of how the business operates). Where IT is not part of the senior management team, or sees itself as a department apart, this issue is more likely to occur.
  2. Strategy formation being skipped. If you don’t understand what a project is meant to be about, it is difficult (to say the least) to form a strategy. However, if the test in point 1. is passed, then it may be tempting (or there may be pressure applied) to get to the end game as soon as possible without either forming a strategy for the project, or fitting this into both over-arching business and IT strategies (which one fervently hopes are complementary). As I know all too well, the strategy formation step can be tough one and people may sometimes be keen to skip it. The current economic climate may lead to this happening more frequently and my opinion is that this will be storing up trouble for the future.
  3. Fragmented systems’ landscapes. Related to the above, it is often very difficult to make progress when there is a patchwork of different systems and approaches throughout an organisation and little desire to address this short-coming. Often some sort of revolution (albeit sometimes a quiet one sustained over many years) is required to move forward. Sometimes this requires some crisis, internal or external, as virtually every organisation is inherently conservative; no matter what their marketing spiel may claim to the contrary.
  4. Lack of Change Management. Projects often also have an organisational change aspect (what else are they for?) and the problems here are: a) people do not like change and resist it; and b) many otherwise able managers are not experienced in change – indeed we tend to educate most managers to be efficient in a steady-state environment. Even when this aspect is recognised, it is often underestimated and work does not start until too late in the game.
  5. People. Aside from these, the main other problem is people. Projects, even small ones, are difficult and not everyone is up to running them. Simple errors in execution can derail projects that otherwise tick all of the boxes.

Of course any passing Gartner analyst is more than welcome to rip this to shreds if they see fit.

“Gartner sees a big discrepancy between BI expectations and realities” – Intelligent Enterprise

Doug Henschen
Doug Henschen at Intelligent Enterprise reports from the Gartner Business Intelligence Summit in Washington D.C., explaining that Gartner analysts John Van Decker and Kurt Schlegel cited five reasons why BI projects do not live up to expectations (article link here):

  1. No IT-Business Partnership – “We have to get away from thinking of it as a vendor-customer relationship,” said Schlegel.
  2. No Link to Corporate Strategy – BI team have to listen to the executives and develop metrics and measures that are aligned with their goals.
  3. No connection to the Process – “BI has been overtly disconnected for too long,” Schlegel proclaimed. It’s not enough to deliver the right information to the right users. You have to insert those insights into the processes and interfaces that business users live in every day.”
  4. No Governance or Too Much – It has to be just the right amount of governance. BI grew up departmentally, so it’s all too common to have many silos of BI. At the other extreme, some companies are so uptight about data standards that companies can’t get their data into the warehouse.
  5. No Skills – Business users often lack skills, chimed in Van Decker, citing the one area where the business side was said to be falling short. “Most companies have very sophisticated capabilities available that folks just aren’t taking advantage of,” he said, pointing to corporate performance management (CPM) software as a leading example.

I come close to the situation of words failing me when I read a list like this (though not close enough to prevent me penning an article of course). I appreciate that maybe a public seminar is not the easiest place to provide deep insights (I present a lot myself), but the commentary against each of the problem areas seems odd to me. I’m not sure that these are really the five reasons for BI continuing to disappoint in some organisations, while it continues to delight in others, but here are my thoughts on each headline.

  1. No IT-Business Partnership – We have to stop talking about IT and Business as if they were two parties trying to negotiate a cease-fire. IT is a business department, it carries out business projects. It would be ridiculous to say that there needs to be a Sales-Business Partnership, it should be equally so with IT. I expand on this theme in the very first article on this blog.
  2. No Link to Corporate Strategy – There should not be a link to Corporate Strategy, BI does not exist as a separate entity that requires linkage. Instead BI work should be an expression of Corporate Strategy (as should any IT project), what else is it an expression of? This is not about listening to executives (though that is important) it is about IT being part of the senior management team of an organisation and not some semi-detached entity, focussed only on the beauty of its own navel. I give some indication of how to go about ensuring that this is the case in two articles, one focussed on a European environment and one spanning four continents.
  3. No connection to the Process – I agree that embedding good BI in a coporoate culture requires effort (indeed I have written a series of articles on the subject, starting with this one), however I struggle to see how any BI team could fail to realise this and pay the area due attention. If this is truly a reason for failure, then it is because of a lack of basic project and change management skills in BI teams.
  4. No Governance or Too Much – I’m not sure that achieving the Goldilocks approach to Governance is the issue here. BI’s impact on an organisation is directly proportional to how pervasive it is. This means that silos of BI reduce value and the walls need to be knocked in. Does this have to be all in one go? of course not, there are always benefits in a balance between incremental progress and paradigm shifts. Any organisation who has gatekeepers who refuse access to the warehouse because of and overly rigid approach to data standards is going to have problems. Equally where systems are developed with little thought to the information that they provide and data is simply thrown over the wall to the BI team, this is going to destroy value. As ever, there needs to be a sensible balance struck, one that yields the greatest business benefit for the lowest cost.
  5. No Skills – “Business users often lack skills”, this seems both incredibly patronising (are only IT people smart enough to get it?) and also a poor excuse for BI teams not paying enough attention to education (see point 3. above). If business people truly lack the skills to use good BI, then they are probably unfit to be in business as the tools are pretty intuitive (if not over-engineered by an approach that is too technology-focussed). More likely, training has been poor, or the BI deliveries have failed to be tailored to answering questions that the business wants to ask.

In summary, I don’t have five reasons for BI failing to live up to expectations, I have one. I firmly believe that BI done well is both the easiest of IT systems to sell to people and has one of the highest paybacks of any IT initiative. BI done badly (at the design, development, implementation or follow-up stages) will fail.

The issue is basically a simple one: just how good is your BI team? If a BI implementation fails to deliver significant business value, then instead of looking for scape-goats, the BI team should purchase a mirror and start using it.

Continue reading about this area in: Some reasons why IT projects fail
Doug Henschen joined Intelligent Enterprise as Editor in 2004 and was named Editor-in-Chief in January 2007. He has specialized in covering the intersection of business intelligence, performance management, business process management and rules management technologies within enterprise applications and architectures. He previously served as Editor-in-Chief of Transform Magazine, which covered content management and business process management challenges.

I comment on another Intelligent Enterprise article, this one by Cindi Howson, here.

A common-sense approach to BI from Information Management


I am not sure whether it is the economic crisis focusing minds, or if there has been a turning point in the maturity of BI, but there seem to have been quite a few common-sense articles about the area recently. One I have just read is by Fei Luo at Information Management. The article may be read here.

Much of what Fei has to say chimes with my own experience of successfully driving change using BI in organisations. In particular, the observations about business involvement, having a strategy, regular business communication and the importance of training are all well-made. I would go even further saying that good BI projects must have a proper business / IT partnership at their centre; one that goes beyond business involvement and becomes business commitment.

My further thoughts about some of the themes raised by Fei Luo’s article can be viewed in the following blog posts:

Business involvement:
Having a strategy:
Business communication:
The importance of training:

I was pleased to see these areas being drawn together in a single, cogent article.

Fei Luo is vice president of information services at City National Bank, a public bank headquartered in California. Fei Luo can be reached at

Mitigating problems with the IT cycle

This article is the second of two focused on problems arising from the IT cycle. The first piece, which may be viewed here, talked about what can sometimes be the unfortunate aftermath of a successful IT project; the team seeking new work rather than the allocation of resources to the most pressing business needs. As previously explored, the problem is basically one of human nature and therefore addressing it is not straightforward. However here I make some suggestions that could possibly help.
It is not possible to totally “solve” the problem of the IT cycle; however there are some steps which can be taken which can reduce its impact. Happily, several of these are also positive for the organisation in their own right.
The Basic Problem
1. Communicate better about projects

A prerequisite to not building up monolithic, inflexible IT departments is awareness of opportunities elsewhere in the organisation. Where people have some perspective of other current and future projects, they may see opportunities for advancing themselves which, in turn, can provide opportunities to mitigate the IT Cycle problem.
2. Use similar technologies / development methodologies

The more similar the approach taken in different teams, the easier it will be for people to migrate between them. Obviously using similar development tools is one area; however it is perhaps even more important that teams adopt similar development methodologies. People can adapt much more quickly to doing the same sort of thing in a different development environment than they can adapt to doing something quite different in the same development environment. Having said this, the best case would clearly be to work in a new team in a similar way and with the same tools.

Different tools will always be needed when, for example, development of reporting and transaction processing systems. Even here, it will be helpful to enhancing flexibility if the same databases are used and if the same terminology is adopted for business objects.
3. Cross train staff

This is pertinent to development environments where these differ between teams. However, even if all teams share a common development tool-set, cross training can give people an appreciation of systems which they did not develop, both their technical architecture and business purpose. This will stand them in good stead should they be required to work on these systems.

Cross training does not have to be extremely time-consuming and extensive in scope. Much could be learnt by 30 – 60 minute seminars held at lunch time. Such work not only prepares staff for changing teams, finding out more about other systems and projects it may also encourage them to consider other roles within IT.
4. Cross train managers

At least of equal importance is making managers aware of what is happening in other teams and how. With the right attitude, such information can be the genesis of a more flexible attitude to staff deployment and career development.
5. Make use of temporary secondment

The nature of IT work (or most other kinds of work if it comes to that) is that what was a priority last year may not be one this year, but may become important again in six or twelve months. This volatility argues for some flexibility in resourcing. If department X has a trough in workload which is anticipated to last six months and department Y has a peak which is also anticipated to last six months, then seconding some of department X’s people to department Y may be an answer (this of course assumes that people’s skills are transportable – see the last two points). Of course the peaks and troughs will not always coincide so conveniently. Nevertheless, secondment can be a tool in both increasing the breadth of knowledge of IT staff and in managing fluctuations in demand for people between different departments.
6. Make appropriate use of contractors

Particularly when there is a focus on expense, contractors are often seen as a bad thing. They cost a lot, they have little commitment to the company, any intellectual capital which they accumulate during an assignment is not retained by the company when they leave, and so on. However some of these criticisms could also be applied to at least a substantial section of permanent staff. Contractors are expensive because they offer specific skills at short notice and do not require much commitment from the company. Replacing contractors with permanent staff reduces our ability to cope with the IT Cycle (though clearly when managers retain contractors beyond their useful life, this contributes to the IT Cycle problem).
The Budget Problem
7. Build IT budgets from the ground up

Rather than starting with the existing IT staff in their existing departments, a potential approach might be to assess the priorities for each year and then allocate resources accordingly. This might introduce a note of instability to IT, but this could be managed and the process would also better reflect business realities.
8. Rank projects by business benefit

If the above is not practicable, it would still be beneficial to rank the business benefits of projects undertaken by different departments. The difference here is that the assessment comes after budget submission, rather than before. However the results might be somewhat similar. If one department’s new projects all ranked lowly, then thought should be given to reallocating some of their staff to higher priorities.
9. Have departmental IT budgets vetted in detail by other IT managers

It is difficult and time-consuming for non-IT people to assess the intricacies of projects. However IT professionals are familiar with these. A review of an IT department’s budget by an IT manager who is not part of that department can improve the likelihood of the budget being closely aligned with business value. This need not be an adversarial process if seen as a method by which to enhance the quality of the budget.
The “Latest and Greatest” Problem
10. Identify what new technologies are most applicable to the organisation

As well as exciting IT professionals, the “latest and greatest” technologies may often have solid business benefits. However the state of the art in IT moves forward so fast and in so many simultaneous directions that it would be nigh on impossible to keep apprised of all of them. A better starting point might be to assess what capabilities are the basis of an organisation (e.g. an organisation might decide that the expertise of its staff and the quality of the relationships with its customers are fundamental) and then investigate what technologies best support this. This can lead to a good alignment between employing newer technologies (happy IT people) and focused business benefit (happy profit centre managers).
11. Be prepared to let some people go

Ultimately, if people want to be into the latest cool thing then sometimes we will have to let them go a do that elsewhere. It is better to try to build a culture where success rather than use of “cool stuff” is important. IT staff with a strong appreciation of the organisations business and how to support it will ultimately be a more valuable resource than a group of talented technicians.
A General Suggestion
The above problems are all essentially managerial in nature. The final strategy addresses this head on and is perhaps a prerequisite for progress on the other ideas.
12. Provide incentives to IT Managers who effectively manage staff numbers

People are after all human and nothing helps quite so much in aligning the goals of the corporation and the individual as targeted incentives. Such incentives can be direct (e.g. bonuses for re-deploying staff) or indirect (e.g. annual objectives including one pertinent to this area or the manager’s attitude to effective use of resource being a criteria for advancement).

If an organisation is suffering from the problems inherent in the IT cycle, then I would recommend this final step as the first one to take.

Problems associated with the IT cycle


This article examines an area that is often one of some debate in both IT and business circles; namely issues pertaining to the size of IT teams, the length of IT projects and the ongoing expense associated with both. Here I will attempt to analyse problems associated with the nature of IT work and IT management and to identify the underlying reasons for these. In a forthcoming article I will offer some ideas about how a more flexible approach could lead to more efficient deployment of IT resources and thereby enhanced business value.
The IT cycle

Figure 1 - The IT Cycle
Figure 1 - The IT Cycle

Systems’ development is inherently a cyclical activity. An example of a typical cycle appears in the above diagram. The solid line, bordering the blue area, shows how resource is built up over time in order to develop an application meeting a business need and then requirements for resource fall as the system stabilises and moves into maintenance mode. There are a number of distinct stages: –

1. Feasibility
2. Preparation
3. Development / Testing / Deployment
4. Maintenance
Each of these is stages characterised by, amongst other things, different resource levels (these stages are described in detail in Appendix A – Description of project stages, and the levels of resource required are described in Appendix B – Resources required during different project stages).

The above may be seen as a somewhat idealised – and certainly simplified – view of a project. For example, a project may have more than one phase, the first could roll out basic functionality, the second enhance this with less time-critical (but none-the-less important) functionality, the third could extend use of the system to other business areas or locations. In these cases, the point at which the project first goes live is not the beginning of reducing staff numbers. Instead at this point two teams are needed, the first to support the live, phase one system, the second to continue to build phase two. This would frequently lead to a resource increase at this stage.

Also by the time that the system is deployed, business focus may have changed, leading to substantial requirements for modification or enhancement. This is essentially the same model as phased delivery of fixed requirements, it is just that the planning of the overall project is more fluid.

Nevertheless, such refinements of the model do not change the basic message. At some point (possibly extended by planned or unplanned phased deliveries), the system will meet the majority of the business requirements and new development activity will offer diminishing returns. At this point, the system needs to be put into maintenance mode and less staff will be required. This is the essence of the IT cycle.

I will now consider some problems that the IT cycle can lead to.
The Basic Problem

Having reviewed some aspects of the IT cycle and explained how this applies to all systems development, regardless of how extended this might be, we can now focus on the basic problem that this model presents.

This basic problem can be seen as one of inertia – the tendency of things to persist in their current state unless impacted by some external force.

Over the first three stages of the IT cycle, focus has been on developing a strategy, building a team to execute it and then realising the vision. Anyone who has been involved in this process will attest to the collective pride and comradeship that develops with the team. A feeling of “us against the world” can take hold, followed by an immense sense of joint achievement when a system is successful. People often also grow through such a process, junior analyst/programmers become senior analyst/programmers. Designers become more experienced. Project managers become battle-hardened. As a result of this, at the beginning of what would be the maintenance phase, the IT organisation is left with a group of people who are creative, successful, focussed on development rather than support and have the mindset of wanting more challenges. Such people have a high value in the market and are more than aware of this.

Therefore, the IT organisation has both a challenge and an opportunity. The successful project has resulted in more experienced and able people being available, but where will their next challenge come from? This situation can be addressed in two ways. The former is harder to achieve and less often practiced, the latter is the path of least resistance and more prevalent than many IT managers would like to admit.

Option A – Assess what the current, pressing business priorities for IT are and devote the best people from the completed project to these.

It is likely that there is more than one area to which they could contribute. Maybe they will be able to take on a more senior position in their next project. This option is not as easy to achieve as it might seem. Consider two projects, X and Y. The former has been very successful but is going into maintenance mode and requires less staff. The latter represents a current business priority. Assuming the goodwill of the managers of both projects, potential obstacles to behaving this was would still include: –

people in Project X have different technical skills to those in Project Y and so cannot simply transfer and start work immediately
people in project X may have a different way of working from those in project Y – this may present cultural difficulties which are disruptive to both new starters and existing staff in Project Y

However, because it is a very positive outcome, I will devote some time to how the obstacles to this option can be negotiated in a later article.

Option B – Try to find more work for the existing project team to do in the same area.

It is a lot simpler to take this approach. People often appreciate continuity more than new challenges. It is generally the case that there will be more work which can be done, the question is rather the value of this work compared to what the same resource could be doing in other areas.

There are some very human factors that can reinforce this approach: –

managerial prestige (or, less kindly, empire building)
rewards and progression being seen as tied to managing bigger and bigger teams
job security of the management of the project moving into maintenance mode
lack of appropriate positions for staff elsewhere in the organisation
the effort involved in building the project team being seen as wasted if it is “broken-up”
the desire not to fire staff, particularly those who have served the company well and just completed a major project successfully
business sponsors wanting to retain “their staff” anticipating further work at some future stage
“rewarding” past work with more work

The combination of these factors can modify our resource graph to look more like Figure 2 below.

Figure 2 - The problem with the IT Cycle
Figure 2 - The problem with the IT Cycle

Here, when the project has notionally reached the maintenance stage, resource does not reduce and may indeed continue to grow. The red area demonstrates the difference between actual staff numbers and what the IT cycle model would predict. This may be seen as excess resource, or perhaps as a loss in productivity in IT. If, instead, this excess resource can be re-deployed, we have an opportunity to increase the overall effectiveness of the IT organisation.
The Budget Problem

The normal budget process can exacerbate this phenomenon. Often the manager of an IT department will start with their existing budget plus wage inflation as a base line. Anticipating future cuts, they may increase this by say 20%. What then follows is a turf war with each IT manager trying to hold on to their budget. While there is no incentive for any given manager to take a more flexible approach, such behaviour is rational and will continue. Of course it should be stressed that IT is not the only area to suffer from this type of problem.
The “Latest and Greatest” Problem

On top of this we can add some attributes of IT staff which, although generally desirable, can have a downside as well. Many IT people want to be involved in the latest and greatest technology – this is not always what is going to add most value to the business. Sometimes, in order to retain the best people, IT management can give in to this trait. At the positive end of the potential results, this can lead to happy staff and greatly enhanced systems. At the negative end are projects to re-write systems in new technology for little reason other than the staff would like to do this and may leave if they do not get the opportunity.

There is no right answer here, what might be seen as indulging IT staff’s whims may actually be the hard-headed, practical thing to do in some circumstances. What is most important is to achieve an appropriate balance between the need to retrain and motivate the best staff and the need to align work to business priorities.
So there are a number of problems facing IT in this area. However I believe that they are all tractable and I will offer some ideas for addressing each problem in a future article.

Continue reading about this area in: Mitigating problems with the IT cycle.

Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI

There is a strong link here to my Vision vs Pragmatism article. In this I argued that Vision and Pragmatism are both essential for the success of any project, be that related to change, to IT, and certainly when using IT to drive change. Unsurprisingly, similar comments apply to whether a holistic or incremental approach to BI is the superior route. However, in this case, I will come down more firmly on the side of one of the options.
The benefits of an incremental approach

Of course the secret of the success of many projects is their incremental nature. Incremental deliveries, particularly those early on in a project, enable you to do a number of things, including: –

  1. Proving that business value can be added the work that you are doing
  2. Showing tangible evidence of progress
  3. Demonstrating that the project team is responsive to business priorities
  4. Chopping up funding into more digestible parts
  5. Providing early exposure to change management issues; allowing time to learn from mistakes when still operating at on a smaller scale

Overall incremental work can enhance the credibility of a project team and thereby made it easier to secure senior management support. Such work is indispensable to any project.
How does the sum of the parts measure up?

However there is a point to be made here in favour of a holistic approach which goes beyond my previous preference for always having an overarching vision. This is something that is specific to business intelligence and relates to the nature of information delivery. In a nutshell the sum of several incremental BI developments may be considerably less than the whole if each is not part of an overall strategy.

BI is about having the information necessary to run the business. However, it is also about how that information is delivered and how internally consistent it is. Often BI projects aim to address a fragmentation of existing reporting systems that leads to confusion amongst users and even a general distrust of figures. It is entirely possible to perpetuate this situation, simply replacing older reporting technology with shiny new ones. Each of these new systems may be easier to use that its predecessor and offer significantly greater access to information, but the fragmented nature of information provision will not have been addressed; it may even have been made worse.
A single platform

The ideal for a BI solution is to have a single platform which supports all pertinent reporting needs. There will undoubtedly be different segments of this, tailored to different groups of users, but these should use subsets of the same dimensions and measures and the same reporting and analysis tools should be used. Adhering to these precepts means that when users of one part of the system need to employ another part, they are not taking a step into terra incognita, but instead are familiar with their surroundings and get the sense that the same logic pervades all of the system.

On a practical level, this approach minimises costs due to software licenses and simplifies your technical architecture, again keeping a lid on expenditure. Fewer people are also needed to both build and maintain a single, central system than many divergent ones. Just as importantly, a single-platform approach means that training becomes focussed on business issues rather than the functionality of a different reporting suites. My experience suggests that, after an initial investment in thorough training for users, introduction of new reporting capabilities can be very smooth and efficient in such a set-up.

Of course developing good BI takes time and effort. Getting to the eventual ideal state that I have described above will undoubtedly take some time (in my most recent BI project it took five years to fully realise). This means that there is no real alternative to the incremental approach that I described at the beginning. However, taking a more holistic approach ensures that your incremental deliveries are aligned with both each other and overall business needs. It also means that with each incremental release there is a related reduction in fragmentation. This is the difference between slowly unveiling a large, coherent edifice and revealing several separate sculptures one at a time.
The link with cultural transformation

In particular if an aim of your BI project is to transform how users behave (of course this should be a central aim of any BI project, what else is BI for?), then this is going to be most easily achieved with a holistic approach where each phase builds on the success of the previous ones. In this scenario, each incremental delivery can be seen more as extending the remit of your BI system to a new area, rather than adding on a new module. Phase N+1 always reinforces the messages from Phases 1 to N. Each step reduces fragmentation, increases consistency and further improves decision-making. This is the best way to make sure that your BI efforts exceed the sum of their parts, rather than falling short of them. Such a rigorous approach is also the best way to ensure that you meet your cultural transformation objectives.

Scaling-up Performance Management

This was the title of a presentation that I made at the Butler Group BI Symposium in London during October. In this article I wanted to focus on just one theme that I discussed; namely meeting the management information needs of a variety of business units, each of which spanned a number of different countries across Europe.

The eight European countries impacted by my BI project

This seems like a very obvious thing to say, but if you goal is to meet the management information needs of a wide range of business units across multiple countries, then it helps to work with quite a few of them to figure out what they want, where this overlaps with your project objectives and how to get everything aligned.

In my experience things have always worked best when the project team have recognised this early on. In a recent European-based project, my team initially spent nine months working with a group of 30 business people from ten different departments and eight different countries (of course this process lasted a total of nine months, we did not lock them up in a room for the duration). We called this group our Extended Team. Part of our work with them was gathering requirements – we started with a blank sheet of paper and asked them what metrics they wanted to run their company. We then went through the painstaking work of better defining these ideas, distilling them down into different themes, making mock-up reports and eventually iterative prototypes. At each stage, we met again with the Extended Team and got their further input.

Now while this is a great way of gathering requirements and ensuring that your product will answer real business questions, it is and even better way to create a core group of business people who feel strong ownership of the product and are proud of their association with it. In turn, this helps amazingly with driving cultural change. On returning to their day jobs after a typical two-day meeting, the members of the Extended Team would be very positive about what they were involved in doing and share their enthusiasm with their colleagues. Momentum starts to gather and you begin to create a buzz about the project.

As well as being the people who helped us to make the eventual business intelligence system user-friendly and business-focussed the Extended Team were also our marketing representatives in the regions and helped to build up positive expectations about the system.

We put a lot of thought into the type of person that we wanted on this Extended Team. We wanted people who were leaders, who were open to doing things in new ways, who were comfortable with technology and who took an analytic approach to their work. This group made a major contribution to the success of the project. It would not have been possible to scale-up our solution without their assistance.

Continue reading about this area in: Developing an International BI Strategy.

Vision vs Pragmatism

The ESA's Herschel infrared space observatory

This time last year, I was a member of a panel on a webinar hosted by Computing and Accountancy Age magazines. This post is not specifically about this webinar, but rather about positions that I regularly found myself taking in response to questions. The questions were along the lines of “Do you think that X or Y is more important in trying to achieve Z?”, my frequent reply was “both”. In fact at one point I recall deprecating my own fence-sitting.

Fence-sitting is not normally seen as the most noble of human activities, it tends to suggest a lack of decisiveness, even timidity. However, when faced with a question as basic as “What is more important for survival, food or water?”, then “both” seems to be the only intellectually credible stance to take. Allowing for the nit-picking point that you will die of thirst quicker than you will starve, over the medium term food and water are equally important. I feel the same about vision and pragmatism in business projects and in business people.

There is nothing that homo sapiens likes more than to pigeonhole his or her fellows. We tend to take a binary approach to people’s skills. Fred is a visionary, but you wouldn’t want him to run a project. Jane is brilliant at the details, but she doesn’t see the big picture. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the idea that the strength of any colleague is automatically balanced by a weakness; it brings them back down to a reasonable level – what the Australians call tall poppy syndrome. Maybe the way that we think about visionary people is also influenced by the connotations of the word, bringing to mind soothsayers, prophets and oracles. All of these historical figures had an other-worldly persona (often literally). They were not like “normal” people. Culturally, those who have visions are seen as a race apart. As Fitzgerald might have said “Let me tell you about the visionary. They are different from you and me.”

Setting aside any psychological angle, there are two points to be made here. First, of course people are all different and are endowed with varying abilities. This means that any successful team needs to have a balance of personalities and skill-sets. If you have some one who is purely a visionary on a team, then that is a great strength (most of the time), but orthodoxy suggests that this needs to be balanced by people who have less ethereal skills. So far, so hum-drum.

The second point is a potentially more interesting one. Maybe, contrary to what I have written above, visionaries are not so different from the rest of us. Instead of being skin-clad augurs with wild hair, maybe visionaries are people who can embrace a certain way of thinking when necessary. Maybe vision is something that you can turn on and off. This certainly chimes with most theory about personality types. Something that is often forgotten is that extrovert / introvert is not a binary choice, but a continuum. Also where some one places on this scale on average, may be quite different to where they place at a particular moment. Some one who is 75% introvert on average may be exceptionally extrovert in certain circumstances. Applying the same logic, some one who is not normally visionary, may be so sometimes and vice versa. So instead of the orthodoxy of having a team made up of discrete personality types, maybe we should realise that the behaviour of team members and what they can contribute may change over time.

There is clearly a lot that could be discussed here, I am going to restrict myself to talking about vision and what is often seen as it alter-ego, pragmatism. The question I will consider is “What is more important for a project, vision or pragmatism?”. This is where I return to fence-sitting, my answer is a resounding “both”. Vision is necessary to work out what to do, pragmatism is necessary to do it; a food and water situation. In fact I would argue that the optimum way to run a project is to initially develop a vision of the ideal outcome, ignoring any constraints. Such an approach is often seen as unrealistic and is tagged with unfavourable epithets such as “ivory tower” or “blue sky thinking”. However it is a necessary step. I much prefer the idea of thinking of what could be achieved and then applying constraints of time, funding and appetite for change, than the opposite where any potential progress is immediately ham-strung by such considerations. If vision is used to define a desirable, but potentially unattainable, Utopia and then pragmatism is used to pare this down to what is achievable, then the resulting strategy will retain some of the shape of the original ideas. It is likely to result in an approach that has a central theme, that is coherent and which will offer a platform for further progress. Applying pragmatism first is likely to yield a fragmented programme that is uncertain what issues it is meant to be addressing and, by seeking to do only what is incremental, will inevitably fall short of what could be possible (even given constraints).

Looking at this issue the other way round. If there is not the second-pass of applying pragmatism to the initial vision (even sometimes to the degree that the vision is rejected as unworkable), then failure is all but guaranteed. Pragmatism is the structural engineer finding solutions to the challenges posed by the architect’s design. It is figuring out the “how” after vision has established the “what” and “why”. It is also one of the main attributes that is necessary for governing execution, suggesting as it does a flexible approach and the maxim that “what counts most is what works best”. It is difficult to envisage how anything other than pragmatism would lead to success in these phases of a project. There is however something else to consider here. Something that sustains projects through execution is often the initial vision. This gives the team a sense of what they are doing and why they are doing it. This can be crucial when the inevitable setbacks are faced. Vision may also need to be switched back on when a major obstacle needs to be overcome or a change in direction is required. Rather than thinking of vision and pragmatism being sequential phases, perhaps they are alternating mind-sets that continue to vie for pre-eminence during a project. On average vision has the upper hand early on and pragmatism in the middle and later stages, but at any given point, it maybe desirable for the positions to be reversed.

This is another echo of the earlier comments about personality types and it is to this area that I will return in closing. Certainly projects need both visionaries and pragmatists; however these can often be the same people. I would argue strongly that a number of people are capable of both developing visions and aggressively pruning these to make them realisable, or chopping them into phases with phase B predicated on the success of phase A. Further I think that a make-up that embodies both vision and pragmatism, together with having the ability to flip between them as dictated by circumstances, tends to be the ideal one for managing projects. Certainly having one person who can encompass “what”, “why” and “how” seems efficient, but this holistic view of the process tends to go hand-in-hand with a passion to deliver. This passion is a product part of vision (believing in your own ideas) and part of pragmatism (owning the delivery of these ideas) and a very powerful factor behind successful projects.

Continue reading about ideas related to this area in: Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI.