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Marriage on the Rocks

Marriage on the Rocks

Troubled IT projects, like troubled marriages, might benefit from some third-party therapy

Ian Angus, NCR Australia's MD in the mid 1980s, was the first person to advise me that the relationship between a CIO and their IT supplier was akin to a marriage. The implication is that problems and challenges are inevitable in both a marriage and an IT project and that the secret for success is communication.

Recent research from the Australian chapter of the Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators (IAMA) indicates that the links between marriages and IT projects may, perhaps, be even closer than we might think. According to their research, conducted last year in conjunction with the ACS and the Project Management Institute, it seems almost the same percentage of IT and matrimonial partnerships end up in difficulties. The evidence is that 46 percent of IT projects result in some sort of dispute. Therefore, like a marriage, chances are IT executives, whether they are vendors or end users, will at times need some external help in problem resolution.

Perhaps there are other lessons that IT executives can learn from matrimony. For a long time the only recourse that sparing spouses had for settling their difficulties was through the courts, and the outcomes were often fraught with failings. Over time a series of facilities have been developed to which couples can turn when their marriage hits problems. Resources like counselling, mediation and arbitration are all designed to provide a less antagonistic environment for resolving problems. In the end the court is usually a rubber stamp for actions decided elsewhere.

Unfortunately, it seems that in IT disputes the court is seen, all too frequently, as the first port of call. In recent years entire conferences have been devoted to writing better IT contracts, with the inference that this will make your court case stronger. Yet the IAMA research highlighted that of the various dispute resolution avenues available the highest level of dissatisfaction was with litigation. Around 50 percent of respondents were either very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with the outcomes. Clearly the adversarial nature of a court case can be an unpleasant experience, but other concerns were cost and time to resolution.

I wonder whether IT should take another leaf out of the marriage book. I think it is time for this industry to give more emphasis to a role for neutral mediators who can work with both IT suppliers and CIOs to determine how problems can be amicably resolved. It's an increasing practice in the building industry, another sector where disputes are common. The outcomes there seem impressive. Faster resolutions are being realized and these resolutions are usually more creative, flexible and cost-effective.

As someone who has been through a marriage breakdown I know from firsthand experience that it can be exasperating, frustrating and mentally draining. No side wins during the process. Yet it was only when we drew on mediation that we started to agree on how we could go forward. The mediation process brought calmness and objectivity to the dialogue, which made it easier to appreciate the other person's point of view. The evidence from the IAMA is that, rather than wallow in some quagmire of discontent, many local IT projects could similarly benefit from mediation. Who knows what might eventuate? Perhaps CIOs and IT vendors could even live happily ever after.

Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager's Survival Guide and ran the InTEP IS executive gatherings in Australia for over 10 years

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