Thursday, May 23, 2013

New President Interview -- Part 20 Completing projects

Completing projects*

Q: Why do projects fail and what can be done to increase success? I remember when I was writing office automation programs, I was assigned projects that from the beginning I questioned the scope of the project. I was told just give them what they want and don’t worry about the scope or goals.

A: Too many bean counters are concerned with the monetary returns on investment (ROI). In education ROI numbers concerning money are largely a fiction because not all returns are quantifiable. Many returns are not measurable for years. People’s feelings can’t be measured with hard numbers. We test students’ knowledge and count how many graduate, but those numbers do not always equal success. [fn 1] If the margin of error in a survey or test is too great the survey may have little value.

For a major project the cost of business transformation is never included in original set of numbers. For example when the library or business office purchases a new management system, the new product may change the way they do business. The project planners need to plan for the new ways of operation and how that the transition and learning will impact daily transactions. The time investment in training needs to return a time savings later. The new system should be evolutionary with a clear goal to improve operations, not change for the sake of change. When one brings cultural change into the ROI calculations the numbers become impossible to get right. However, when we realize the grey area of calculations, the project can be more humanized.

The accountants and business people think analysis is a science. They think the numbers should predict the cost of the project and its potential return. The front-line people think planning is an art that is all touchy-feely. In a well-run organization planning is a combination of research, number crunching, and seat-of-the-pants experience. In a poorly run company investment decisions are exercises in proving one investment is better than another. The poorly run process is a marketing exercise trying to get the upper management to buy in to the project. I work hard to tune out these marketing exercises. Any strategic project at the College must pass the test of being sensible economically, organizationally, culturally, and psychologically. If it doesn’t make sense, we shouldn’t do it.

Projects cost money, time, and other resources. Money should be invested where it can give a good return, but the return is not always based on pure numbers. Some of our programs cost a lot of money and the return to the community is greater than the return to the College. That is part of the reason we get tax money as part of our income.

The scope of the program must be multi layered. For some projects some early returns are needed to show people we are on track to success. A missed opportunity for a show of success early in the implementation may doom the entire project. Early good results will win over some skeptics and help pave the way for continued support.

It is not possible to do the number calculations right because projects costs and benefits are a social science, not a hard science.

Q: If there were competing projects that demanded more resources than the College could afford how would you choose which projects to support and fund?

We have to be very careful to choose projects that are for the good of the College not for the good of the promoters’ or decision makers’ careers. In business rarely do the people in upper management have the technical skills to manage complex technical systems. The technology skills needed can’t be found in the board room. At one time I was very technically knowledgeable, but today I have to delegate responsibility to those whose responsibilities include keeping up with the products and systems in their area.

Let me share some stories – In a family owned business the current president is the son of the founder of the company. He moved up thought the ranks and his last position before being president he was the manager of the IT department. He took over the business when his father retired. He still thinks he has the IT knowledge to make IT decisions in the best interest of the company.

The president hires a new IT manager. The IT manager finds out dated desk top computers, printers, and servers. He proceeds to inventory all equipment and discuss the computing needs of all employees. Many employees complained about broken or inadequate hardware, software and systems. After a couple of months he turns his analysis into a proposal which he gives to his boss, the president. The president goes over the proposal, but in the discussions he clearly does not like the idea that someone else did this analysis. The president holds the proposal and does nothing for two months. The IT manager finally asks the president about the proposals and he gets the brush off. It is clear that the president does not want to delegate. He asks around the company and finds the president frequently ignores non-family members’ requests and concerns. The IT manager is frustrated and the other employees blame him, not the president for not getting new systems. After three more months the IT manager leaves the company for a new job.

The president did not trust the manager to do the job for which he was hired and is an expert. The project was for the good of organization, but the president saw the project as a threat to his domain.

I was giving a seminar in the College for managers. In a question/discussion period, a midlevel manager from a financial services company, asked what he should do when competing with other department heads for funding when he know the other projects were more important for the company’s success. A senior executive from another company advised him to do everything within his power to fight for his project. He said look out for yourself and your team over the good of the company.

If one of my College department heads had that kind of thinking, I would do my best to either change his/her mind or escort him/her out the door. That thinking is enough cause to dismiss even a tenured faculty member.

Any strategic project needs to be done for the good of the College. However, small projects may be done for the good of a department or academic program. For example we have competitive grants for professors and departments. The winning projects do a lot for the individuals involved, but the contribution to the overall strategy of the College may or may not exist.

Q: Returning to increasing success for projects – How do you ensure long-time success for projects?

A: First some projects are meant to be short-term or have a limited duration. If the project is part of the College strategy and mission, involved parties must have responsibility and involvement for success. Eventually the project will evolve into a long-term part of our strategy or become a new and revised project. The hand over of the reins of the project to new people can invigorate and improve the project. In technology, projects last from two – five years. In the College a strategic project could take 5 -10 years. That is not because we move slowly but rather we have some many people involved and project evolve more than technology based systems.

The College has to plan projects that are nimble and agile enough to evolve to meet changing situations and solid enough to meet the legal requirements and educational needs of our students. Projects need a balance of involved people. Some people are engineers with the technical abilities to manipulate materials, resources, and time to complete a job. Others are the administrators who set goals and strategies. They connect the internal with the external needs and wants. The project manager keeps both the engineers and administrators on task. The humanist makes sure people feel good about the projects. The humanists have the people skills to unite the various personalities, skills, and temperament. They are also the marketing, promotion, and advertising people. The scientists want to measure and predict everything. They want to take the engineers’ projects and turn them into something that conforms to norms and generates reproducible data. Large projects need a diverse skill base. If you put twenty writers into a room you will get a lot of stories. If you put a lot of professors in a room, you will get a lot of grand ideas. If I create a good mix, we will have a better chance of success.

Q: Thank you very much. 

*Part twenty of an imaginary interview with the president of the College. Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.

 Fn 1. Some of the ideas in this article are from “Why tech projects fail : 5 unspoken reasons,” by Coverlet Meshing (pseudonym for a senior IT executive at a large bank) in Information Week, April 22, 2013. Online version (April 8, 2013.): The follow-up article is: “5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures” Information Week. Online version (April 22, 2013)

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