A large IT project can easily come off the rails and righting it isn’t always easy.
Momentum compounds mistakes and without the right underlying foundations, projects can be costly or impossible to fix.
By avoiding these missteps, organisations can ensure their projects will be goal-oriented, of high quality, and secure both in design and operation.
You don't need to look far to see IT projects – large and small – that have run into problems getting off the ground. While some are public, an innumerable number that the media never hear of play out their death throes in boardrooms and government departments every day, burning money and providing questionable returns on investment.1
There are multiple reasons why big IT projects fail, from bad planning and budgeting, misunderstood customer requirements to just plain naivety over the scale of the opportunity or extent of the changes required. Undeniably, however, the digital age has increased expectations around the sophistication of user experience and with it, the complexity of IT projects.
When projects involve technology there is potential for fallout, both financially and reputationally. Large-scale or innovative projects in particular, need to be carefully considered from day one as once momentum has built, mistakes tend to compound and putting the brakes on, or changing direction can be increasingly difficult. There is no such thing as too big to fail.
As organisations look to embrace the very latest innovations in cloud and digital technologies, it is easy to think that the key risk is in the adoption of the tech itself, but rarely is this actually reality. And while it is true that there is no magic formula for a perfect project, there are common missteps we see. Here are our tips to avoid them:
Lack of shared vision – No matter who is working on a project, from staff and stakeholders to departments or consultants, a sense of collaboration and trust as well as a strong alignment of goals is crucial to avoiding misalignment. Projects are very rarely a straight journey from A to B and teams invariably have to navigate towards an outcome. At these course correction moments everyone needs to be on board with the ‘north star’ of the project’s vision.
Misaligned clarity and priority of requirements – Everyone wants to dream big, but it is the detail that can make the difference. Without the basics locked in, the ability to deliver value in a predictable and sustained manner will be compromised. This is especially so in an age of ever-evolving customer and business requirements where the first release is rarely the end point, but the start. Make sure that you have a clear line from business needs to technical requirements, all the way down to the user and a minimum loveable product, along with the principles and processes that allow for prioritisation and decision-making at every level of the team.
Not being clear on who’s in charge – If you can’t start a meeting by asking ‘who’s in charge of X’ then you have a problem. A surprising number of projects are driven without this clarity, which not only risks outcomes but can also undermine and disempower teams and leaders. Ensure clear accountabilities for end-to-end architecture, delivery and operations aspects of the project, as well as delegation rights. This will allow things to run more smoothly and foster a sense of ownership across the team, ultimately supporting better decisions.
Slow or weak governance – A strong level of senior leadership will be needed for strategy setting, project steering, making big informed decisions and risk management. This goes doubly for security – the risk calls around mitigation vs acceptance, cyber accountability, and overseeing third party risk all require executive sponsorship. Even if you outsource development, you are rarely outsourcing actual risk. To be agile in delivery you must be agile in governance with well engaged, tech-savvy, enabled leadership informing direction.
Underinvestment in guardrails – Whether platform technology, security, front-end design or application coding, having standard ways of doing things will ensure teams are productive, secure and retain a high level of quality. Countless projects miss this step with proof-of-concepts going straight into production. Many teams can find this boring, but to be able to deliver at pace and with confidence, productivity must be maximised while ensuring ‘important things’ are done well and consistently. Investing in guardrails helps avoid wheel-reinvention, and allows for focus on the business outcome – saving time, money and risk in the long term.
Manual mayhem – For large-scale projects, automation and tools are essential to delivering consistent value and to being able to manage and deploy changes. In contemporary projects, change needs to be embraced as a constant. Intervention down the track without automation leads to a risk of inconsistency and unpredictability. Equally, poorly considered automation can lead to rigid solutions, inflexibility and additional costs. Look to pragmatically embrace automation in key areas of your project – across development, testing, release and operations – focusing first on where it will make the biggest difference and manage risks.
Focusing on the wrong things – Large investments and daily burn rates mean it's easy to fall into this common trap. A mini-industry of slide decks and reports can provide the false comfort of progress without actual progression. To find the sweet spot for reporting it’s worth asking whether or not you are ‘weighing the pig’ by focusing on more reports, or actually taking decisions and actions that will drive a successful outcome for your project, and the delivery of real business value.
Forgetting about operations – The days of ‘design, build, run away’ are long gone and success is increasingly measured by quality, reliability, sustainability and secure operations. Customer experience increasingly relies on everything being in working order 24x7 but many projects assume a ‘handover to Ops’ is done in the last few weeks before go-live. Plan for operations from day one, architecting for operability and reliability. Instrumentation, support and recovery tools will be needed to help manage uptime. And don’t forget that operations must be sustainable and allow for incremental delivery for the entire life of the solution and service.
Security as a ‘bolt-on’ – Security can’t be added at the end of development and ‘secure by design’ doesn’t mean ‘secure and done’. Successful IT projects embed key security activities from the outset and throughout, from architecture and engineering into operations. This is even more important as organisations embrace open source, in which vulnerabilities can emerge on a weekly basis. Make sure to plan and adequately budget for security as an ongoing, non-negotiable set of activities to avoid unwelcome surprises and manage your cyber risks.
Confusing agile with reduced rigour – Cloud technologies provide the ability to deliver value faster than ever before. The need for speed has also driven widespread adoption of agile delivery, however, it has been misconstrued by some as an opportunity to ignore industry best practices, leading to unstable solutions and unexpected costs. Rigour and precision in execution are critical to delivering secure, performing IT projects - and probably more important than ever to accelerate digital transformations. To confidently drive value from innovative cloud technologies, manage risk and costs, establish a robust architecture function which has ‘muscle’ to help drive precision in all aspects of engineering and operations.
When a small project goes wrong, it can waste time and cause the pursestrings to be tightened.
When a transformative project fails it can cause disaster.
If you’ve managed to convince your executives and board of investors that the money should be spent, then work to spend it right – take a holistic approach and seek to do the work thoroughly. Shortcuts on the basics will only come back to bite you later.
While there is no infallible approach to deliver the perfect IT project, tackling the pain points above will help manage risk in delivery and tilt the odds in your favour. When operating large, the details make a difference, and small things can often lead to big trouble – but with the right foundations and experience in place it doesn’t have to be the case.
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