IT Projects Need Less Complexity, Not More Governance

July 17, 2015

Contributor: Susan Moore

The failure rate of IT projects remains appalling. How can you ensure that your organization delivers successful applications?

Despite more than 50 years of history and countless methodologies, advice and books, IT projects keep failing.

The most common response to a history of failed projects is to increase project oversight, with a particular emphasis on reporting. However, more is often mistaken for better when it comes to governance. The key to changing project outcomes is to focus on effective governance, not increased reporting.

Speaking ahead of the upcoming Gartner Application Architecture Conference in Sydney, Darryl Carlton, research director at Gartner, explained that despite the best advice available, information systems are not being built with the same degree of reliability, integrity and predictability as other engineering disciplines.

“When a project fails, the usual suspects are trotted out and paraded as the solution to this latest disaster – more governance, improved stakeholder engagement and better and more frequent reporting,” Mr. Carlton said. “If only we do more of [pick whichever silver bullet you want], then the next project will be a success.”

These aspects of a project are present in both failed and successful projects. They are not exclusive predictors of a project likely to face problems, or an indicator of the exclusive reasons of a project's success.

Complexity leads to failure

Gartner studied more than 50 projects that are on the public record as having experienced complete failure, have been seriously compromised or have overrun their IT budgets significantly. The analysis showed that the organisation's refusal to address complexity in the business process is the main reason. Complex projects with unrealistic goals, unproven teams and almost no accountability at all levels of the management and governance structure, means no one is responsible for failure.

“ Gartner stresses that governance is "the assignment of decision rights".”

This means that when a program manager or product owner is assigned to lead the project, that project head must also be given the appropriate authority to make decisions in that capacity. Assignment of decision rights means the assignment of accountability and responsibility for making decisions and for managing the risks associated with those decisions.

“Governance does not mean only the creation of a project reporting structure,” said Mr. Carlton. “When a project starts to stumble, increasing the volume and scope of upward reporting will only place more burden on the project and will be unlikely to improve the likelihood of success.”

"This is the way we have always done it" is not an adequate defense when senior management demands business improvement and best practice. There is almost always a disconnection between the ambitious objectives of the project and the demands of those at the management coal-face to ensure that "the system" is modified to reflect "how we work." The authority to make improvements and consequent changes must be reflected in the decision rights of the project.

Improve your chances of success

Successful projects are characterized by less bureaucracy in governance arrangements and greater focus on outcomes. Where there are more people or committees demanding an ever-increasing volume of reports than there are managers delivering the project, there are bound to be problems. The take-away message is that you should simplify everything about the project, and ensure that the program manager/owner has the responsibility, accountability and authority to get the job done. 

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