Opinion: The long and winding road of governance shortcuts

When I was young, our family vacations always involved long car trips. Whenever my father announced he was taking a shortcut, it took us twice as long to arrive at our destination. Many large organizations are similarly headed for some rough patches of road because they have tried to shortcut their project-planning processes.

Governance processes are designed to help companies use limited resources wisely. However, several Fortune 500 CIOs recently told me that business units in their companies have used the recession as an excuse to circumvent virtually all governance. Projects have bypassed the executive steering committee, skipped the priority-setting process, and headed toward implementation with flimsy business cases and incomplete project plans. When IT protests, the business units claim that they needed to fast-track the projects in order to respond to competitive threats. In fact, they have ceded ground to their competitors by avoiding virtually all disciplines necessary for project success.

For the CIOs I talked to, these situations always ended badly. When project delivery schedules slipped, executive management demanded that IT take over the failing project. Each IT organization revised the project plan (amid loud complaints) and eventually implemented the desired system, but with reduced scope and significant cost overruns. And in spite of their valiant rescue efforts, IT lost credibility, and the CIO consumed precious political capital.

Project restarts are never painless. Each company suffered at least one of these additional consequences:

  • Delays benefited the competition. Each project wandered for six to nine months before IT took control, and final delivery dates were delayed by an average of six months. Meanwhile, the competition strengthened market position.
  • Critical IT resources were redirected. IT staff are usually assigned months (or years) in advance. But rescuing a runaway project requires the most talented people. As a result, other important project schedules are also impacted.
  • Fingers were pointed and politics got vicious. Business units felt their autonomy was challenged, and resented IT's involvement. Individuals who initially argued against shortcuts were criticized for not being team players. When project scope was eventually reduced, IT took the heat, and sometimes had difficulty resisting "I told you so" retorts. Unfortunately, being right didn't reduce the negative impact on the corporation's bottom line.
  • Missed deadlines and poor quality implementation convinced one organization that the initial project concept was flawed. Rather than restarting the project with a more realistic project plan, this company abandoned a viable (and likely profitable) project, yielding market share to competitors.
  • Project disasters spurred some executives to find and punish the guilty. When management failed to stop the recriminations, the organization quickly became risk-averse and cynical. Worse, staff avoided taking responsibility. Decision-making slowed, and bureaucracy flourished.

    Effective project management processes, while required for success, are frequently derided as "bureaucratic overhead." Falling sales often create urgency to skip the critical planning phase and "start doing something." This approach appears to cut unnecessary corners but can actually foster project failures. Don't let your company give in to this temptation! Instead, use these objections to justify streamlining any cumbersome steps in your existing corporate process.

Insist on good governance, whatever the cost. Educate your management team about the potential costs of shortcuts, and get support from your peers. After a project shortcut fails, get management to agree that future projects will follow established processes. (Get signatures if memories tend to be short.) As a last resort, pound on the table and bet your job. Because if other projects failures occur from similarly stupid shortcuts, guess who will take the blame? Odds are strongly in favor of IT. And you will be looking for a new job anyway.

My father had to relearn every summer that shortcuts didn't pay off. Make sure your organization only has to learn it once.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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