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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.

Over time, Hagerup's team even got the project close to achieving its initial goals, though they never got credit for it, he adds.

He thinks his team would have come out of its funk faster if managers had talked to them about what had happened and how they felt about having their project regarded as a failure. But that reaction "is just not in the playbook of the typical CIO," Hagerup says.

Taking the News Hard

Projects that are killed when business needs change might seem like the easiest for team members to shrug off, since it's no one's fault.

But in fact, "people take it pretty hard" when a project that's going well is killed anyhow, says John F. Fisher, a former CIO who is now chief value officer at NET(net) Inc., a software contracts adviser based in Holland, Mich. "They feel like, 'Could I have done something better? How could we make it work for the business?' Well, you can't. And that frustrates a lot of IT people."

And then there are the big, troubled projects that need to be put out of their misery. Emotions run higher on projects seen as significant, Fisher observes, and the prospect of being out of a job amplifies the anxiety.

In the mid-1980s, Fisher was involved in putting the brakes on a two-year project to build an international banking platform to enable the former Continental Illinois National Bank to update its European operations. He was European systems manager at the time, and he came on board after the project was already under way. Despite moments of glory when things looked promising, it became clear that the platform lacked several essential features and that the project's 45-member team wasn't going to be able to fix the problems cost-effectively.

Fisher recommended pulling the plug. "We were all committed to getting it done, and we had a lot of conversations about whether we could we save it," he recalls. But the answer, in the end, was no.

"It was a very difficult decision; it had an impact on a lot of the people," Fisher says. He had to lay off about a dozen contractors in London, the project's base, and junk a data center, since the system was built to run on Prime minicomputers purchased especially for it. Nobody from Continental's IT staff lost their job, though some people on the business side did.

As for Fisher, "I felt good at the time," he recalls. He was, after all, saving the bank money and time. Later, though, he realized that he and the remaining members of his group were tainted. They weren't added to the team working on the new system, even though they had gained what could have been seen as valuable experience.


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