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A project stuck in the playground

A project stuck in the playground

Like two children fighting in the schoolyard, Brisbane City Council (BCC) and TechnologyOne are playing out a very public battle over their collective failure to deliver a technology project.

When I was 11 I had a fist fight in the playground with a boy in my class. As I recall it lasted for a while and it was about something we both felt passionately about at the time. He thought he was right and I thought likewise and in 1980s Liverpool in the United Kingdom, the only place to sort that out was in public using your fists.

It got ugly, we both got hurt and frankly it did nothing for our credibility or reputations. We were eventually hauled before the headmaster who told us, in no uncertain terms, that we’d let ourselves and our class down and gave us lunchtime detention for a week. When we returned outside the following week, people didn’t want to go near us for fear that we’d get them in trouble too.

And so to Brisbane City Council (BCC) and TechnologyOne, who, like children in a playground, are playing out a very public battle over their collective failure to deliver a technology project.

For those not following the story, it’s been ugly for a while. I won’t bore you with the details – you’ve heard it all before – but essentially both organisations suck at communicating and in delivering projects generally and neither one of them wants to admit to it.

They appear to be staffed by senior managers (no-one is leading here) who took a ‘hands-off, no-one is accountable here’ approach and are now wondering where it all went wrong. This is opposed to being clear on expectations from the start, building a culture of success and a plan to deliver a vital tool for staff to use.

They’ve resorted to levelling ridiculous claims and counterclaims at each other, in the hope of salvaging what’s left of their reputations.

It shouldn’t be this hard but, sadly, this is just the latest in a long line of projects around the world (here’s one example from Scotland) to very publicly fail and those running projects are once again reaching for their teflon suits, rather than fixing the cultures that they’ve created.

The Project Management Institute found in it’s Pulse of the Profession report last year that ‘less than two in five [organisations] place a high priority on creating a culture that recognises its importance as a driver of better project performance.’

Consequently, these projects become just another statistic, with the Harvard Business Review finding that IT project failure costs US$50 billion to US$100 billion annually in the United States alone.

Rather than being proactive and spending time and money on refreshing the delivery culture, the managers involved resort to mud-slinging: ‘It wasn’t me sir, it was him.’ ‘He started it.’ ‘We had an agreement and he broke it, sir.’

Technology One executive chairman Adrian Di Marco said this week: “Projects at times have problems and, in my 30 years in business, when this happens people get in a room to discuss it and find a commercial resolution. People do not go public until all avenues have been exhausted, especially if they have not previously raised a problem, let alone attempted to resolve the matter.”

Ironically, he said this publicly, in the latest of a string of tit-for-tat exchanges with senior council officials.

Let’s be honest here, everyone single senior manager, project sponsor and project manager involved in this project is to blame. The Lord Mayor of Brisbane, the CEOs and CIOs of both organisations and the respective steering committees set up to support and challenge them to get this right, all had opportunities to resolve this and all have failed. A couple of staffers at Brisbane City Council even resigned as a result of this debacle.

Project failure is not a new thing, it’s been around for the 20 years that I’ve been in the profession and the excuses for failure are not new either:

  • Poor requirements specification
  • Lack of planning
  • Poor communication
  • Inadequate contracts
  • No leadership
  • Scope creep
  • Not enough people
  • Not enough money
  • Lack of clear priorities
  • Ineffective meetings
  • Poor quality of software.

And so on and so on.

Read any report into failed government projects – try the Victorian Ombudsman report here and the Peter Shergold report into NSW projects here for starters – and you’ll get a blueprint of what failure looks like.

BCC and TechnologyOne have fallen into this trap and rather than one party being the better ‘person’ in this dispute, the playground seems to be where they are going to take care of business.

The title of my new book - The Project Rots From The Head - has never been more applicable. Senior managers and those planning and running projects are always in a position to deal with failing projects before it’s too late, but rarely do they do so.

A project sponsor’s job is to:

Provide effective stewardship for the project. This means role modelling behaviours, being clear on priorities, ensuring that they have a good team of people around them and that they are ‘present’ at all times

Make the right decisions at the right time. Making sure they are clear on the problem to be solved (not the solution to be implemented), that they pick the right project manager for the job and manage them wisely, that they’re ethical in their dealings and that poor performance is quickly – and honestly – dealt with.

Get the results. Ensuring that the benefits expected remain achievable throughout, that reporting is honest, unambiguous and acted upon, that successes are celebrated and achievements acknowledged and (in this case) they get the returns on the public money invested.

If they do all of that well, they simply have to ensure that the project manager does their job effectively. That they build a team, build a good plan, then deliver the project. Always in that order and with no shortcuts to ‘get things going quicker’.

There are only two reasons for project failure. Poor executive sponsorship and poor project management. Everything else is an excuse linked to these two things.

What gets forgotten very quickly is the impact this poor leadership has on the staff that worked so hard to build or upgrade an asset. There will have been countless meetings, numerous documents, many reports and hundreds of hours spent trying to get this right. They have all been let down.

In my experience organisations talk a lot about change or project fatigue but do little to mitigate it. I’ve recently returned from the US where I did a number of speeches and I heard that many times. Here’s the thing though, organisations that do projects well NEVER suffer from change fatigue.

They’ve learned the lessons of the past, continually evolve their communication styles, listen to those at the coalface of delivery and ensure that there are development programs in place to support the changing skillset required when it comes to delivering projects.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the hierarchy of either BCC or TechnologyOne will read this article and decide to be mature about this (they’ll be ‘too busy’). To collectively agree that they were both at fault.

To publicly acknowledge the hard work put in by staff and to apologise for their failure of leadership. To agree a way forward that learns from the failure and to resolve to do things differently next time.

To retrain or re-educate everyone involved in leading projects so that they understand it’s not something they can do ‘part-time’ or ‘accidentally’. And to show us all that they can communicate in a way that builds trust, integrity and relationships and sets the example for others to follow.

I’d love to see that, but I’m not holding my breath. Until then, I’ll be at the side of the playground shaking my head, with everybody else.

Colin Ellis is an award-winning project management speaker, trainer and best-selling author. His latest book The Project Rots From The Head: How Senior Managers Can Stop Projects Failing, Forever was released in May. You can find out more about him at www.colindellis.com.


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Tags The Project Rots From The HeadBrisbane City Councilproject managersVictorian Ombudsmanprojectsproject managementTechnologyOnePeter ShergoldColin Ellissenior managerschange fatigue

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