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For IT projects, silence can be deadly

Five key conversations can mean the difference between success and failure in IT projects

By Robert Scott
February 5, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In a Web 2.0 world, IT is dramatically redefining business models. Whether providing new ways to reach customers, establishing radically new business-to-business relationships, cutting new-product time to market in half, or enhancing worker productivity and global collaboration, IT is the core enabler.

These days, however, less than 30% of corporate initiatives come in on time, on budget and on spec. The rest either fail outright or are significantly disappointing. So while much has been done to improve new processes, tools, techniques and governance concepts in the past 20 years, there is surprisingly little progress to show for it.

This point was dramatically emphasized recently by a major study called “Silence Fails: The Five Crucial Conversations for Flawless Execution.”

“Silence Fails” was conducted by The Concours Group and VitalSmarts LC to identify the causes of IT project failure. This worldwide study involved more than 1,000 executives and project management professionals representing a cross-section of major corporations. It included analysis of more than 2,200 projects. The Procter & Gamble Co. was one of 40 companies participating. Our goal was to determine how we could take our project management competency to the next level.

What we learned was alarming. The research suggests that the culprit in 85% of project failures is silence. The study showed that there is a definable set of project communication problems that are far more common than most senior leaders realize. An estimated 90% of project managers routinely encounter one or more of five critical problems in the course of a project, but the killer is the silence that follows. Initiatives are derailed when people are unwilling or unable to have conversations about the problems they see. When one or more of the five crucial conversations doesn’t happen, problems fester, work-arounds proliferate, politics prevail, and failure becomes almost inevitable.

But there is hope. This research and our experience tell us that the light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t have to be an oncoming train. The study discovered that when people are able to discuss these core problems effectively, projects come back on course. This finding was hugely important for P&G because we manage more than 1,500 IT projects each year, more than 60% of which are global. The high-stakes nature of our projects means we have to get this right.

For example, over the past seven years, we’ve worked to reorganize our IT services. We’ve developed IT partnerships that have enabled us to outsource commodity work and move some of it to low-cost locations. In the process, we have dramatically cut unit costs and improved service quality. But these were complicated projects involving dozens of high-stakes variables, personnel issues, varied cultures and difficult cross-company communications. We’ve seen each of the five problem areas come into play, and the single most important factor in helping ensure success has been communication.

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