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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.

Emotional finger-pointing is "uncalled for, unprofessional and unnecessary," says Dana B. Harris, manager of United Technology Corp.'s global program management office, who oversees multiple programs that encompass some 202 projects. A better solution is a smart postmortem—his company uses a root-cause analysis process—to show where the project failed and determine rationally what steps to take to avoid future mistakes.

-- Michael Fitzgerald

She fell on her sword, telling her managers that IT had made a mistake by picking an untried technology, and she outlined a new approach that included an Ethernet backbone. Cabletron agreed to provide new equipment at no additional charge and to help install it. She demoted the network manager, who later left the firm.

While morale in IT was terrible during the project, she says there wasn't much in the way of postproject depression. "They were happy that we had a network that worked," says Gietl. Her transparency eased some of the tension, Gietl feels, and though the lawyers joked pointedly about "computerless Fridays" for a while, having a network that worked well proved to be the best salve for the failed-project wound.

Accenture's Corless would applaud Gietl's forthright approach. IT management can best help its employees by dealing with dead projects directly and quickly.

"Rip the Band-Aid off -- tell people live and in person," he advises. "Don't shift the blame by saying something like, 'I wouldn't have canceled it, but this is what the COO wants to do.' That says you're not part of the leadership team." Such managers lose a chance to build credibility and rapport with their teams.

On the other hand, managers need to be careful about plumbing feelings right after a project has failed. "You'll get tempers flaring. People aren't thinking straight," warns Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group, a Boston-based IT research firm that produces an annual report on failed IT projects called the "Chaos Summary."

Johnson advises IT managers to wait a couple of weeks before sitting down with staff to assess what went wrong. But don't wait too long; if you do, people may already have rationalized what happened or forgotten what went wrong.

In the end, managers need to remember that what gets IT people going is the chance to learn new things and develop new skills, says Corless. To that end, the best way to help employees grieving over a dead project is to "quickly get them into [another] meaty and interesting role," he says.


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