For IT projects, silence can be deadly

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

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.

We established teams upfront to set clear expectations with leadership, team members, and our partner companies and their employees. And then we worked diligently to ensure that whenever expectations changed, were met or were not met, we communicated that to all involved.

We put in place core people, backed by rewards and requirements, to ensure that we discussed issues head-on and quickly. And we shared data — good and bad — as soon as possible. The team members learned to work through issues together, trust one another and learn from one another. These relationships remain strong and are delivering results beyond expectations.

Conversations Count

We learned that project failure can be predicted with surprising reliability. That’s because the problems requiring the five crucial conversations are widely perceived yet rarely discussed. The best predictor of project success is the quality of these conversations.

Silence exists in organizations because people feel it’s not safe to speak up about the problems they see. They shy away from discussions about behavior, expectations or performance because they are afraid of a negative outcome — like making an enemy, enduring a miserable argument or getting canned.

At P&G, we understand that having these five conversations — addressing these human factors — is crucial to the success of our cross-functional initiatives. And based on these findings, we are enhancing our development program for project managers to include early assessment and communication of these key issues. We’re also educating senior managers on their role in creating an organizational culture that encourages project managers and team members to “break the silence” and engage in these crucial conversations.

A 31-year Procter & Gamble veteran, Scott is vice president of information and decision solutions. Contact him at scott.rd.1@pg.com.

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