How can #IT managers avoid scandalous project failures such as the fire service, BBC, NHS and HMRC?

By | August 19, 2013

Jon ShawGuest blog by Jon Shaw, a business change manager at a large housing association and MBA alumnus of Bradford University School of Management. With an IT background, he recognises the perception of IT people and how they are often excluded from mainstream management decisions – or brought in too late.

What personality type makes the ‘perfect manager’? There are dozens of books, articles and research papers on this topic – but generally they agree that the best managers are empathetic, focus on strengths and are aware and considerate of their colleagues’ interests.

I’m sure everyone will have their own examples where they have felt IT colleagues lacked broader business and communication skills, to the detriment of the business.

And this is a problem for businesses and organisations. Technology and IT are now core to just about every function – whatever the sector and whichever the operational area.

Courtesy of mailonline

Courtesy of mailonline

If you look at just a few of the great IT failures in recent years, the cost of not getting these management skills right is enormous:  a £12bn NHS computer system had to be scrapped, the great failure of the £98m HMRC projects and the BBC also scrapped its £98m digital media project.  The latest was the abandoned regional fire service control rooms at a cost to date of £280m – part of the issue was ‘its IT systems were beset with problems’.

The scale of waste is difficult to comprehend.

I am not usually prone to sweeping generalisations, but I am convinced that at the heart of these problems was the lack of influence from IT specialists within the business (and not external IT consultants, who I’m sure will have been significantly involved). I am sure they will have been ignored, thought to be irrelevant or brought in at too late a stage of the project.

So how does an IT manager learn new skills and even, to some extent, change their personality and start influencing and helping to shape projects that deliver success, not failure?

With a background in IT, here I share my own views of how I have gone through some of this process. I should say that my analysis is mostly with the benefit of hindsight and, like a recovering alcoholic, it is something you have to keep working at throughout your career.

1. The IT personality
Early in my career I recognised that I lacked confidence but was ambitious. I went on a Dale Carnegie course and picked up a few techniques, but I felt like I was on a half-life curve of decline, where you feel really confident coming out of the course but most of the benefits disappeared quickly

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Then I made one of the best decisions of my life, to do the executive MBA – I did this part time at Bradford over a few years while I carried on working.

As part of our personal development plans, we had to analyse our strengths and weaknesses – and I realised that I could list dozens of weaknesses but was struggling to articulate strengths. The classic profile of someone who is introverted. One of the lecturers became my mentor and that started my journey towards confidence.

2. Gaining people skills
To complete the MBA, we had to take on a significant management project, a bringing together of the skills acquired across module disciplines. After a false start, the one I ended up doing was fortuitous, because it pushed me way out of my comfort zone. The local Ilkley Business Forum asked if I could investigate a ‘shop local’ initiative. Not only was this a marketing-oriented project – a discipline that I had always dismissed as ‘fluffy’ and a grey area of business – but it also meant talking to local businesses and the public, listening to them and really understanding what they were saying. I also had to learn how to explain things in very simple language, which was a great skill to practice.

None of this was natural and I had to learn new skills with the help of tutors and I worked hardest at this part of the MBA. Across the MBA modules, I got the best marks in areas where I had little previous experience – whereas I had expected my highest marks to be in project management and operations. Completing the management project was also a tremendous boost to my confidence, particularly producing work that was so useful to the local community in deciding how to develop their shop local initiative.

3. How should HR teams develop IT managers in business skills?

IT managers

Courtesy of

So what do I see as the lessons from my own experience? Here are a few key points
• Generally, HR and management teams are not managing IT people or supporting senior managers within the IT function. Because they speak very different languages they struggle to ‘communicate’ with each other effectively, to the detriment of the business
• Businesses need to recognise that IT people can lack confidence or experience in non-technical areas and they need to find ways to develop co-operation and, more importantly, co-ordination between business teams
• IT people need to get involved, lead and manage projects that extend beyond purely IT or finance. The problems being solved should focus on an overall business case and not purely on delivery of technology (often delivered because it’s “cool” or because someone else has it)
• IT people need to gain a better understanding of how technology can support or develop the business and offer up suggestions to the business; becoming pro-active, rather than reactive
• IT managers have got to be involved with new technology projects from the start, not brought in to deliver the chief executive’s vision when all the key elements have already been decided. Your IT team will either have to deliver a sub-standard product or they will be blamed for poor IT capabilities. Rarely is that true and often the seeds of failure are sown at the start of a project

Doing an MBA has been a really efficient way for me to broaden my skills and expertise. An MBA won’t be feasible for everyone but corporates could find ways to deliver some of the MBA elements within the business – such as cross-team projects – to achieve similar impact.

Having done the MBA, I am now demonstrating to employers that I can put the principles into practice by managing business change projects for, amongst others, a large housing association. But even now, I find it is a natural instinct for others to give me the technology side of projects. That would be slipping back to my comfort zone and I have to keep working more widely.

And that perhaps sums up the problem. Consideration of technology can often still be seen as the “tail end Charlie” in the definition and removal of a business problem and, in addition to IT disciplines stepping up to the mark in terms of general business skills, businesses need to recognise the benefit of early involvement of IT specialists in the definition of the problem rather than just the solution.

3 thoughts on “How can #IT managers avoid scandalous project failures such as the fire service, BBC, NHS and HMRC?

  1. David Waller

    Lord preserve us from stereotypes!
    At the risk of misinterpreting this story, it seems to me that:
    Non-IT people (with empathetic personalities) make bad decisions
    They then drag in IT staff to implement things that are set up to fail
    The answer is to make IT staff into the type of people who make the bad decisions in the first place

    Rather than give me a personality transplant (like that’s going to stick…), why not train the decision makers to recognise actual business value and make better decisions?

  2. James Harley

    I understand Jon’s article and subsequently David’s comments, however, may I suggest that there are multiple potential remedies to a failing ICT programme.
    I have been an ICT Programme Director for many years and have had the mispleasure of being requested several times to rerieve failing programmes previously managed by others. I have observed a common thread in these which I believe to be instrumental in their own downfall, especially where fundamental business change is expected to be driven by ICT (as envisaged by top down management).
    The original business justification for engaging the programme was not validated, nor communicated sufficiently well so as to describe the realistic and achievable benefits using the in place workforce. In addition the timeframe is mostly deterministic rather than any risk modelled (uncertainty) analysis.
    So, I would agree, don’t label the ICT crew devoid of talent in business. They are deliverers of logical technology (and process?) rather than business miracles.

  3. David Waller

    Sorry, I went off on one with my previous comments. Looking back at them I rushed to print and came over as much more harsh than I intended. I’ll have another go at explaining my view a little more calmly this time.
    I come from the viewpoint that there is not enough rationality in decision making (I’m rather fond of the concept of evidence-based policy, but that’s a whole topic on its own). The quality of the average business decision is shocking and too often we rely on sweating the assets, such as BAU staff to fill the gap of the value destroyed by these poor decisions.
    The present fashion to fix this problem is to rely on heroes, celebrity, talent…basically, a combination of ego and dumb luck. I accept that people relate to good stories and charismatic leadership has its valid part to play in motivating groups to act in a common cause. However, I take issue with the, “Life’s too complex, what do experts know? Let’s fly by the seat of our pants” approach to business strategy. A ‘Just Do It’ attitude is fine, except when ‘It’ is ill-conceived or downright stupid.
    Changing the behaviour of IT (and other implementation) managers is like giving the nerds a make-over so the popular kids will talk to them. It doesn’t address the problem of the popular kids’ behaviour issues. Who’s working with the Execs so their flashes of creativity are actually backed up with some sound reasoning? Maybe then they’ll involve Jon and the rest of us as we ought to be involved.

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