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Project management: when good IT projects go bad

Michael Fitzgerald | July 26, 2010
Problem projects--killed, euthanized or launched with disappointing results--can leave techies with unresolved feelings that linger for years.

There was no joy in IT-ville, not even an "attaboy" for the effort, Hagerup says. Some negative feelings about a poor outcome were probably inevitable, but it would have helped if there had been some empathy for the IT team, he says.

He wishes IT management had sat down with his team and let them talk through their anger at the unreasonable deadline and the lack of support. Even some simple words of appreciation for their efforts would have been a big help, Hagerup says.

What project failures can teach us

John F. Fisher, chief value officer at NET(net) Inc., a software contracts adviser, learned some valuable lessons years ago when he had to pull the plug on a failing attempt to build an international banking platform for the former Continental Illinois bank. Here's his advice:

  • Push for due diligence at the start of a project. Fisher's team discovered after the fact that other banks using the same development software hadn't been able to get past the first phase of their projects. That should have been a red flag that the software was more of a tool kit than a full-blown development platform.
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  • Set early milestones. That way, you can flush out potential bad bets in vendors before too much time and money have been invested in them.
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  • Watch out for negativity. "Once people get negative on a project, it becomes a force multiplier," Fisher warns. Remind skeptics that once a project has been signed off on, "they need to get on the bus."
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  • Don't let your project fail before its time. Team members can become discouraged if the project runs into bumps. Fight that by refocusing people on specific pieces of the project. "You pull together, you all move forward, you get it done, and it's a success," Fisher says.

-- Michael Fitzgerald

As his group eventually proved, the project's scope was too large for its initial deadline. Failing to complete it on time shouldn't have generated such a pervasive sense of disapproval, yet it did.

Hagerup and his team, which numbered about 10 people, went into a techie variation of the classic Kübler-Ross grief cycle—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—spending several productivity-sapping weeks in the depression phase.

By talking informally at lunch and commiserating over beers on Friday nights, "gradually, we came out of it," Hagerup says. "We circled the wagons a little bit, took strength from each other and reminded ourselves it wasn't our fault."

 

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