The worst projects I’ve ever been on have been doomed to succeed

Image by Graham Richardson – , Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

We’ve all been there. The leaders and politicians/board have literally put their names to the big IT or transformation contract, it’s all signed off. Celebrated with cigars.

Commitments have been made to boards and shareholders, to families, deposits deposited, future income counted.

And the savings and benefits of the programme have been claimed in the financial plans, announced to the press.

Then the work – and trouble – begins. The worst programmes are founded on an absolute inability to ever admit anything is going wrong.

Good people on both sides say ‘wait!’. ‘This IT really doesn’t seem to be a good fit’, ‘I don’t think doing it this way will deliver the results’. They are silenced.

When everyone with power has a vested interest in something being declared a victory, opposition is systematically removed, and things go from bad to worse.

You end up saying ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly’, salvage what you can, get through. And the damage is done.

I have no solution, no pat sign-off to show how I shone in such a situation, and can help you, too.

How can we have fewer big programmes that feel like death marches – ones where we still have to declare victory?

I really hesitated to use the term ‘death march’. It’s in bad taste, because the term was probably coined in the holocaust, and there have been numerous death marches in history, from the slave trade to ‘Indian removal’ in North America to the Circassian and Armenian genocides and beyond: I am going to make a contribution to a holocaust memorial organisation, and you might consider it:

The reasons I use this heavily loaded term are that it is often used inside the programme delivery — call it black humour, but I think it reflects something of the same energy in human endeavour, the reasons why people are powerless to stop bad things from happening. And be clear — even the brave whistleblowers don’t usually cause the plug to be pulled on these misguided projects. And while these are not world-scale tragedies, I have seen them destroy careers and people.

So the question of ‘what do we do about this phenomenon’ is a real and pressing one I’ve been involved in several myself. And I don’t just mean the projects, some of which I’ve started, which were a long hard slog and didn’t deliver much, but cost a lot. We’ve done some IT projects internally which were a bad idea, which we had to see through because we were too committed. But in those cases, we didn’t have to lie about it, we could admit at least some of the unfortunate truth.

No, it is when we have to claim that everything is going well, when we are all trapped in the same nightmare – these are still all-too common and seem to be baked into the way we do things at a societal level. If we can work out how to stop (say) big ERP implementations from feeling like death marches then maybe, just maybe, we can make some small progress in trying to halt tragedies on a larger scale.

Interestingly, this was actually the most requested topic on my recent ‘what should I write about’ and ‘what would you like to hear more about’ posts! ( and )

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