Mckinsey conducted a study in collaboration with the University of Oxford, that suggested half of all large IT projects massively blow their budgets. On average, large IT projects run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted. 

The most common reason reported by IT executives for their project overrunning was missing focus. 

At Automation Logic, we’ve helped a number of projects that have suffered due to continuous priority changes, project switches and a lack of vision. There’s not always blame in these situations, these things happen. There are, however, patterns of how it happens, and more helpfully, how it can be avoided. In the long run, project shifts do end up costing a lot more than the original project should, and even blocks the project from realising the originally planned benefits that would subsequently write off the investment.

In our experience, the reasons for this lack of singular direction vary from external factors, to team makeup and motivation, or even a lack of clear vision internally to begin with. The narrative has switched in the industry, from modernising your technology and embracing the cloud to being overwhelmed by what technology can now do for you, and where to prioritise often limited resources. 

The reasons for a lack of clear prioritisation in projects are many and varying. We interviewed a number of senior leaders out of the current clients we’re engaged with to get a better understanding from those who can speak from experience over theory.

The best visual example offered was to picture a senior leader’s day like a Venn diagram, a very complex multicomponent venn diagram. Somewhere in the middle of budget requirements, stakeholder wishes, engineering talent and preference, client needs, partner status, national regulatory rules and countless other things lies the priority that’s possible. Finding that, is much like walking through a maze with very helpful people all telling you to go a certain way. Except they all individually believe their way is better and while none of them is technically wrong, they’re not quite right either. 

So, the causes for not being able to effectively prioritise and thereby risk the failure of your project(s)… 

The first is quite simply a total lack of vision and/or strategy, Teams need that north star to make decisions and clearly prioritise.

Having a clear priority doesn’t mean it won’t evolve or change over time. In fact, it must change because the world changes, and an inflexible priority will hold you back. Various frameworks and structures can make prioritising either easier or harder. One person said waterfall delivery techniques give you this ‘false sense of clarity’ by making a prioritisation call and sticking with that no matter what outside evidence says you should change. Outside evidence may suggest change, and some may see that’s not the goal anymore but it’s a wrestle to change rigid priorities. 

Events: headwinds and tailwinds. There are always distractions, especially in this industry where things change at an almost offensive rate that seems impossible to keep on top of. But also seismic external events like covid that provide incredible levels of clarity. Both can change priority, some necessary and some with no outcome other than holding you back.

Policy curveballs: one of the most difficult ones for those in leadership positions. One example those in Government may relate to: if the minister wants an app, everything derails to go ahead and create that app. 

Metagaming: (read, careerism). When individual actors, especially seniors, are prioritising career development over the greater good. The need to deliver something for their CV and the next great job. *Cough* Emirates Skyway. 

Conflict avoidance: again this looks at leadership roles. It’s in our nature to want to be liked, but this leaves some senior leadership unwilling to do the ‘dirty work’ such as prioritisation, or equally importantly highlighting what isn’t a priority, so they tiptoe around people, try not to annoy others and get not a whole lot done. 

Budgeting: issuing chunks of money on an annual basis makes it difficult to change priority despite evidence that says that’s the right thing to do. Much like waterfall programmes, budgeting causes prioritisation project failure, rarely delivering the promised benefits.

Priority drift: if you don’t have strategy and vision, continuing to adjust people as needed it will drift off. Priorities do change, but one Senior Leader showed just how simple it can be (in theory) to address this in a consistent, albeit irritating way. Product management should be asking ‘why am I building this’ over and over again. Project management means asking ‘What do you need now, and what do you need next week’ over and over again. Without those nudges keeping you on track, you will drift. Highly-paid people’s opinions, their own priorities and a plethora of other conflicting interests will get in the way. 

The solution

In its simplest form, is to create an environment that allows for the opportunity to continually adjust. Aptly named by an interviewee a  ‘high trust, high tension environment’ 

What this creates is an ecosystem of people with beneficial headwinds, clear strategy and structure, knowing their ‘Why’ 

Agile, is incredibly easy to understand, and incredibly difficult to practice. Take the fitness industry, we all know how to get in better shape do we not? Eat a bit less, or a bit more of the healthy stuff and move more if you can. Yet there is an industry worth billions built up on the entire concept for the exact same reason: what’s simple in theory is complex, individual and downright confusing when it comes to putting it into practice. Surely eating a whole tube of pringles can’t be wrong when it feels so right? 

We’ve seen the power that a clear, immovable goal can have. Occasionally, there are projects with such pressing deadlines that you reach the golden status of progress. Your team becomes a well-oiled machine, clear on their personal and group goals, your budget allocation is used to maximum efficiency and the vision becomes a shared one. 

In practice

One such example was a change in Government policy, the systems were given a hard deadline of when they would cease to work in the UK and this central Government department had to prepare their own before then. Not doing so would result in a breakdown for the UK public that would throw millions into turmoil. This deadline, unsurprisingly, was met despite being seemingly impossible, to begin with. 

There’s no trivialising the effort, hours, and admittedly panic that went into that. But the reason it was a success can be solely attributed back to the fact that everyone was focused and putting the hours in on that one thing. A shared goal, with no room for new priorities until it was done. We’re seeing the same again in light of the crisis in Ukraine. Issues outside of our control are giving the teams the ability for tunnel vision on solving them, especially when it comes down to areas such as security, there’s no room for deviation. 

Obviously, it shouldn’t take a situation like Ukraine for projects to run smoothly. But it gives an idea of what’s possible when you create a culture that allows for unity on one goal. And the way to do this on a wider scale isn’t a dictatorship, but by creating a workplace culture that enables focus. A shared vision with buy-in from all necessary stakeholders, and an ability to work on that one goal and permission to push back if you feel you’re being pulled from pillar to post. 

This empowers the teams, maximises value from third parties, and gives those (unenviably) tasked with setting priorities and allocating resources the confidence to make decisions and stick by them until those results come to fruition.

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