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Turning Failure Inside Out

Turning Failure Inside Out

The risks of technology implementation and the imperfect nature of IT development practices make project abandonment inevitable - CIOs must learn how to handle the crisis

Although 'failed project' doesn't look good on anyone's resume, it isn't necessarily a career-killer.

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too . . .

After being chewed over endlessly in the IT press, the story of your project cancellation has hit the mainstream media - big-time. Headlines speculate about multimillion dollar losses. Business analysts pontificate about the likely devastating effects on the company share price. Rivals privately - even publicly - gloat. You know it is pathetic, but the CEO's demeanour has become so hostile you have started ducking down corridors to avoid him. You have just made your fifth desperate phone call to every head-hunter you know; the board is demanding answers, and the users are hollering for their promised system.

You are living the nightmare of the major IT project cancellation. The anonymous wit who wrote that "success is failure turned inside out" probably did not have the trials and tribulations of the average CIO on the top of his mind, nor did Winston Churchill when he said: "Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm."

However, as US academic Charalambos Iacovou reminds us, although reflecting on failure is painful, not learning from mistakes is worse, since it dooms us to repeat them. The CIO who can learn from an IT project cancellation and effectively handle the fallout can end up - impossible though it may seem in those darkest of hours - enhancing his credibility and strengthening his relationships with the business.

In Surviving IT Project Cancellations, Iacovou, assistant professor of IT at Wake Forest University, and Albert S Dexter, emeritus MIS of the University of British Columbia, cite a Forbes cover story in which an investment banker expresses a preference for hiring former athletes not because they are competitive, but "because they recycle so quickly after things go wrong". It is being able to get past a failure quickly, analyze what went wrong, and correctly adapt future performance that sets them apart from other employees.

"While the ability to overcome adversity is a recognized skill of effective business professionals, its role has been neglected in the realm of IT project failures. This is unfortunate because failure is common: about 15 percent of all IT projects are cancelled before completion, some with disastrous effects," they write.

In fact it is a statistical probability that every CIO during the course of his or her career will suffer from at least one or two major project cancellations, Iacovou tells CIO magazine. "On average, if I'm not mistaken," he says, "one in every six projects gets cancelled before completion. That number is one out of three for larger projects. So statistically for every three projects a CIO has under his or her control, they are bound to have one of those terminate before completion."

Project cancellations can be hugely costly, with damages sometimes exceeding millions of dollars. They can also harm the operational (and sometimes strategic) plans of affected organizations and can tarnish the credibility of everyone involved. This is particularly true in situations where the failed system is important enough to attract the attention of key stakeholders, such as members of the board of directors, auditors, regulators, shareholders, customers or even the general public, the authors say. Publicized failures may jeopardize the careers of all involved.

When a project runs into a problem that escalates into a crisis which turns it into a runaway - whether due to cost and schedule overruns, technological failure or a change in specs or user requirements - some executive somewhere is bound eventually to enquire whether the end result will still be profitable given all the additional resources that have been poured into the work. Most such projects will eventually be killed, Iacovou points out. Looked at objectively, the CIO might have very little cause to feel responsible for such failures, particularly where the impetus for the project came from elsewhere or the root causes of the failure lie with the vendor or user group. But guess which bunny is most likely to cop the blame?

"If you look at the corporate executives' turnovers CIOs tend to suffer from the highest turnover because they do lose their jobs frequently," Iacovou says. "They are easy scapegoats at times. Sometimes they are properly blamed for problems but they are just easy targets."

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