Leadership as the Antidote to Project Failure: 3 Recommendations

 (Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emmanuel Leutze, 1851. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

During a recent conversation, a CIO was elaborating on his plans for change that lay ahead for his IT department. The program would tackle some very thorny issues of under delivery and poor IT reputation. To my question of capacity and capability of the current team came a response that is a measure of how the technology industry (for the most part) treats people.

His response: “They will buckle down and just get on with it if they know what’s good for them.”

This autocratic view on staff motivation and engagement is not unfamiliar in our world. Threats and fear have seldom been successful ways of getting staff on board yet it remains a default leadership style particularly for new leaders. In an increasingly matrixed and virtualized work place, the scary supervisor/boss is not an effective leadership style.

The change program mantra has always been to focus on the triumvirate of people, process and technology but let’s be honest and admit that we make a poor job of our focus on people. Lack of leadership and poor engagement with staff have an impact in the day to day running of any operation and also impact IT project successes.

The factors contributing to the failure of IT projects are innumerable but a review of the press suggests an increasing awareness of the role of the “soft stuff’ in project failures.

A McKinsey and Oxford University study reports that large software projects run 66 percent over budget and 33 percent over time and notes that a key cause is the focus on budget and scheduling to the exclusion of managing strategy and stakeholders.

Adam Thilthorpe, director at The Chartered Institute for IT (UK) notes that

“One of the major weaknesses uncovered is the total reliance placed on project and development methodologies. One explanation for the reliance on methodology is the absence of leadership within the delivery process.”

Alongside technology and strong project management capabilities, what can IT leaders do to develop a “people competency”? I propose that there are three behaviors worthy of investment that will allow you to better engage with staff, and to better understand and influence what motivates them.

  • Listen more and talk less. A flaw of seniority is a love for one’s voice and one’s own ideas. It’s not that we start out like this but titles, position, and uncritical colleagues can corrupt our egos. Sit back more in meetings and listen to what is being said. I mean really listen to what’s being said and hold off on constructing your response until the person has finished talking (this is more challenging that it sounds). Also listen for what is not being said in the room. See this skill as an information gathering exercise that will inform your decision process. Know that being listened to is something most of us long for and will be an important factor in improving staff engagement levels.
  • Communicate. Talk more about what matters to you and the company. Talk less about ROI and key performance indicators. Share the vision of where you are going, not the minutiae of how you are going to get there. Why is this change program important? Explain how each staff member contributes to this bigger picture. Keep communicating as things will change and this needs to be communicated too.
  • Use a litmus test. We know every process needs a measurement point to provide information for any required pivot in approach. Don’t rely purely on feedback from reports. One of the problems of seniority is that no-one wants to deliver the bad news and it’s easy to live under an illusion that all is well. Find some way of testing staff engagement. There are simple on-line pulse checks of surveys like www.happinessatworksurvey.com or develop your own. When I managed a team, I’d ask them fairly frequently how happy they were on a scale of 1-10. This gave me insight into what was going on and option to do something about it.

These behaviors take time so I’d caution against the impatience of the task-focused leader. Listening and communicating as outlined above are not tasks on a to-do list. You can’t tick them off a list. It’s more useful to see these behaviors are part of how you show up at work.

With these behaviors will come better relationships with staff, and more information about potential project pitfalls, staff challenges and engagement hiccups. Armed with this data, the IT leader can be more certain of any required pivots in approach.

We can all agree that we face substantial change in the years to come as our industry modernizes and adapts to outside threats. And we can agree that our ability to manage change is not up to standard. As IT leaders, we are able to play our part in improving change program outcomes by focusing on the soft stuff.

Catherine Stagg-Macey // Catherine Stagg-Macey has spent over 20 years in the technology and insurance sectors. She has experience in a wide range of roles from programmer, project manager, leader and strategy advisor. At Celent, which she rejoined in Sept. 2014, she established and led the firm’s European Insurance practice. She now serves as Executive Advisor at the firm. Passionate about people, she retrained as a coach and founded Belgrave Street, a business offering executive coaching, workshops and facilitation to the insurance and technology industry. Follow her on Twitter: @staggmacey.

Comments (6)

  1. Managers and executives would be wise to heed Catherine’s advice.

    My father and I were playing golf one day, and Dad mentioned that he used to work with the starter. He told me that as a foreman in the former company the guy was a “real prick”, but he was an OK guy now. My father never managed anyone, and I told him that many new managers feel that they are expected to be in total control, know everything, and in general be very autocratic and demanding.

    Most of us who have been through the management gauntlet eventually learn that we get better results through collaboration, listening carefully, and taking care of the needs of our people. But not everyone. I remember one CIO in Asia who told me that the way he got projects done was to figuratively “put a gun to their head”. The project was a disaster. He was terminated.

    Catharine’s way is better. People want to do a good job, and respond well when expectations are made plain, but they feel like they are part of the process, and are treated with respect and dignity,

  2. Catherine’s focus on leadership is indeed spot-on. While most CIOs are probably not as autocratic as noted, there can be a tendency to heavy command/control if projects start going sideways. Proactively managing strategy and stakeholders early in the game is as important as the focus on budget and scheduling. Large projects involve many personalities and motivations. This requires careful consideration of how to manage all stakeholders through the change process.

    Additionally, identifying talent and placing talent in the right role aligned with a vision is an important element of “people competency.” Too often the “work harder” or “work faster” mentality noted in the article misses the capability challenge. What worked in one project may not be the best fit for another, so skills need to be built and people re-aligned to make best use of their real, inherent strengths. In the end, this is as much a people business as a technology one.

  3. Drew Mazeitis comments: CIO’s and other IT leaders understand that communication and listening is important. Admittedly, some are better at these soft skills than others. But they also understand that attracting and retaining talent may be the most difficult part of the job. Few leaders will retain their staff if they take a heavy handed approach.

    Also, there are many reasons why project management is difficult and she appears to be tying together multiple items into the “people” bucket. As a CIO managing your staff is not the same as “managing strategy and stakeholders”. The stakeholders in most projects are the executives outside of IT. Sometimes, these stakeholders verbally commit to a project, then fail to commit the resources or leadership necessary to complete the project on-time and on-budget.

  4. Agree with prior comments from Anthony O’Donnell and John Burke. Enjoyed the recent article from McKinsey – “Change Leader, Change Thyself.”

    It’s about leadership from the top (and appropraite incentives) but organizations need to realize different personalities are motivated in different ways.

  5. John Burke, recently of Teradata, expressed broad agreement with Catherine and Mike Boltz, and added: I am particularly a big fan of RACI. However, at the highest level it really comes down to culture and leadership. And this starts at the top. If you can lead by example, set a clear vision (focused on a solving a business problem), be open and transparent, respect others, do the right things and follow-up at all levels to make sure they are being done (inspect what you expect), your team will follow your lead. And then expect nothing less from your team at all levels organization.

    Finally back to Mike’s point, I think most CIO’s get this. It is hard to be a leader, but doing the above and focusing on solving the business problem and you can get most of the way home.

  6. Mike Boltz, VP of IT at Highmark, had this to say in a LinkedIn comment to the article: Most CIOs get this. Sometimes corporate politics can derail proper project issue escalation and timely decision making, depending if one is working in a culture of concurrence. Also, having an “anybody can stop the line” enabled staff is often hard when bad news is not welcomed. A well defined governance model with a simple and established RACI [“Responsible, accountable, consulted and informed” responsibility assignment matrix] helps make the decision making streamlined. I can’t stress the importance of strong program/project managers that are proactive problem solvers and transparent regarding issues and who can drive execution. Too many watermelon projects that are all green on the outside, but red on the inside!

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