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Did the CIO blow my project?

February 17, 2012

Sitting in a magnificent meeting room with one of those  wondrous NYC sunset views, the client asks, with a shake of his head, why his seeming ‘doable’ project is 2 years behind schedule, 2X budget and just about 50% complete.  He had a rigorous selection process, chose what seems, at least at first glance, to be a suitable software application, and had his own IT group implement.

Googling ‘runaway projects’ gives references all the way back to the 1980’s when it comes to troubled IT projects.  KPMG found, in 1988, 35% of their largest clients had problem projects, which moved up to 60% just 3 years later.  Just recently, The Standish Group did a survey on Policy Administration Systems projects, one of the hairiest applications for an insurer, and the heart of their IT application suite.  The results, showing a 71% Challenged or Failed rate, are a bit unnerving, particularly since the license fee for a PAS can easily exceed $1.5M, implementation can be 2-3X that amount and the disruption to the flow of business can be significant.  The actual breakdown was:

  • 53% were reported as ‘Challenged’
  • 18% labeled as ‘Failed’
  • 29% declared ‘Successful’

There are too many bland recitations on how a project can go right or wrong, for that matter, most filled with easy to digest bromides such as who has control, reporting, organization structure,metrics, etc.  We especially love metrics since Excel shows them so well, as does its big brother, MS-Project.  Like everyone else, I had a wicked laugh while watching Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill turn baseball on its head by introducing a brilliant set of metrics to an until then seat of the pants management and scouting system.  One factor was not being challenged by the Moneyball approach – everyone knew the common definition of the desired outcome.  Baseball teams had to outscore their opponents within a 9 inning timeframe.  Not come close, not look good while doing it, not have old-school uniforms evoking the good ol’ days, they had to outscore the other team by the end of either the 9 or extra innings.

As I write this in the NY Metro region, we’re all under Lin Fever.  You can’t turn on the local news without being assaulted by bad puns, such as Lincredible, Linsanity, etc.  He is a superstar and a captivating personality, and it’s fun to hear how he was cut from 2 previous teams before the Knicks gave him a shot, more out of desperation than planning, and he made it happen.  Who would have known?  Well, per an article in this morning’s NY Times Sports section, a FedEx driver did.  He computed the two key metrics, much like the Moneyball approach, RBS40 and FG percentages (you can look them up; they’re arcane, at best). But here too, the definition of ‘done’ was never questioned, only how to predict if a player will help the team get there.

This is where the extra pay afforded to Strategic CIOs over their tactical counterparts is worth the bucks.  Strategic CIOs may not be personally able to reboot servers or analyze code, but they are expert at translating business needs into techno speak for implementation.  They are the holders of the project vision, the definition of ‘done’. Too often we think the Systems Integrator will provide us with this vision, but in reality, they can fascilitate setting the ‘done’ vision, tell you if it’s feasible or cost effective to achieve, even help execute, but the business has to decide on ‘done’ and the CIO has to be both the steward and the enforcer.

Done can be defined, like our sports examples, above, in remarkably straightforward terms.  When I hear long winded business to IT alignment conversations defining a project, it’s a clear warning light of future engine seizure.  Future scope redefinition will almost always fill this thoughtfulness vacuum; a failed or troubled project becomes predictable. The supporting plans and tasks/deliverables must be thorough, but the ultimate definition of ‘done’ must be concise and understandable by mortals.  You want to “invoice customers 20 days earlier than we do now, with fewer people involved and be able to scale to 2x the current invoice volume without raising costs.”  It takes only 15 seconds to verbalize, but reflects the entire process of attaining a commonly agreed to view of ‘done’ reflecting business and IT consensus, matched to currently available software capabilities.  Note this ‘done’ statement is cross silo, i.e., it requires process changes, perhaps right-shoring, and implies all the related up and down stream production systems will support massive growth. It had to be well thought through to become so clear.

Too many CIOs end up in tactical roles, running project reviews, reviewing budgets, and planning infrastructure,  when their real value is helping the organization define, and then deliver, that nexus of what is considered a finished, successful outcome, doable within the necessary timeframe/budget and with currently available technology.

Rich Eichen is the Founder and Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program Rescue and Interim Executives with over 25 years’ experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT/Systems Integration and key initiatives. He can be reached at


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One Comment
  1. Nice article Rich.

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