Is Accountability Strangling IT Project Innovation?
Why is it, with VERY public IT projects, that when they fail everyone seems to want to wash their dirty laundry in front of all to see?
Public interest. It’s public money. The public has a right to know what went wrong.
From Public Health IT to police systems integrations, to farming payments, to benefits, to ID cards, to child support, to prisons, to shared council services … and many more besides, the story plays out the same each time.
In fact, when a Public Sector IT Project goes wrong you can almost hear the media rubbing their collective hands together.
My journalist friend tells me it’s an easy story to write. Each one is an isomorphism of the last. Like when you watched the Lego Movie with the kids and realised that you’d actually just seen the Matrix with different characters. It’s the same story written up by the media in the same way … only the characters change … here’s the plot …
… A Public Sector IT project has failed …
… how much has it cost or wasted …
… who is the sponsor or department responsible …
… who is the contractor …
… who is to blame … cue bun fight between all parties.
Actually, that’s not accountability.
Accountability is creating tight feedback loops that demonstrate when an IT Project is off course. Accountability is acting upon this data to put the project right … or to decide to kill it at an earlier stage before millions get wasted and end users are inconvenienced.
Accountability is being clear on priorities and outcomes.
Accountability is creating a culture where it’s OK to whistleblow about a potential banana skin, where it’s OK to fail fast because it won’t be splashed all over the front page … cue bun fight between my journalist friend and I!
When you create a culture that mitigates against future failure by learning fast and not being afraid to fix issues from specific project related challenges to the very culture itself … that’s accountability.
I’m into governance and, by default, accountability in a BIG way but it should never inhibit creativity. Accountability should be a thing that is bought into by all and respected as a tool to deliver success – not a weapon with which to punish failure. A culture that allows freedom to fail increases its potential to learn and improve.
When you set your ‘learn from failure thermostat’ at these higher levels people respond with confidence, they innovate, take good risks and they’re totally transparent and open. However, when your culture is one of fear when you expect to (literally) be front page news if things don’t go to plan, well, then it would be crazy to take any route other than the safest. The result – less innovation and, even worse, less transparency because everyone is watching their own back.
Here’s why it matters.
I’ve been working with some really talented IT Project Managers who, because of changes to IR35 legislation have migrated their business focus away from the Public Sector and into more private sector projects. Almost all of them are more hesitant about taking even a calculated risk. I’ve known many of them for many years and some are shadows of their younger selves. I remember when they were the pioneers, the innovators, dare I say – even the mavericks. Somewhere along the line, it’s like someone took a big stick and beat it out of them.
Take your pick of the Public Sector IT fails of recent times, it won’t take long to find a casualty – someone who is more reluctant to innovate for fear of public humiliation.
This was (sort of) fine while they were working in the Public Sector where budgets are seemingly limitless. Also, if you’re working on a benefits payment system, it’s highly unlikely that a rival is going to come along with a better benefits payment system and steal all your claimants from under your nose. In business, of course, delays and inflated costs can gift your competitors the edge – you can lose clients to a firm with a more switched on IT Projects team and budgets are never limitless.
I said it’s (sort of) fine. I’d actually argue that IT should be even more innovative, creative and disruptive when its public money that is funding it. That’s another blog for another day but …
Innovation is key to change. You only get the best iteration of your project through constantly striving to be audacious.
When considering this, I’m always reminded of JFK’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech. At Rice University on September 12th, 1962, the US President stood before 35,000 people and announced a VERY public project with an extremely audacious objective and outcome. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade,” he said, not knowing in the slightest how.
Think how much knowledge there was about how to land a spacecraft on the moon, how much previous experience mankind had doing this, imagine how impossible a prospect it must have seemed. No one knew if it was even possible – ever – let alone before the end of the decade. What JFK and NASA did was create a culture, a framework and a plan to do it if it was possible.
In July 1969 Neil Armstrong did indeed take that “one small step” fulfilling Kennedy’s dream.
If you’d have held this very public project to account, like the papers do with IT Projects today, the exploratory Apollos 7 and 9 would have been deemed a failure for only orbiting the Earth and Apollos 8 and 10 for orbiting the Moon, but not landing. “How much money is this wasting?” they’d have asked. As for the tragedy on the Apollo 1 launch pad, well there would have been a clamour for the whole thing to be shut down.
I wonder in today’s climate of “accountability” whether mankind would have taken that giant leap in 1969 or packed it all in somewhere along the way!
And this increasingly is how Public Sector IT Projects look. Who’d bother, right?
So what’s the solution?
1 – Have you noticed the other thing about these big Public IT Projects?
When the papers splash the story and list the players on their front page, it’s usually one big IT firm that seems to be getting a pasting. The private sector has learned that accountability works better across multi-vendor environments that are moderated by a multi-sourcing specialist partner with robust governance. Time and again these bun fights between Public Sector buyers and large IT contractors hit the front pages and from an industry perspective, it makes for unsavoury reading.
2 – Project Management as a Service
When you unpack many large Public Sector IT fails, they start to look like a huge game of Jenga where a few seemingly irrelevant blocks become so unstable that when a key block is removed the whole tower comes shattering and clattering to the ground. In large Public Sector IT it’s the various dependencies that do this, for instance, tasks that are, in and of themselves, fairly inconsequential but together can deliver a fatal blow to your project.
AND it’s unnecessary! The Project Management as a Service market has evolved around meeting needs like this on a really flexible basis so you can literally hire what you need when you need it to patch up your project capability.
3 – A Culture of Flagging Failure
When large public IT projects fail, often at post-mortem stage it is identified that someone in the process had spotted that something wasn’t right but they either weren’t listened to adequately or they failed to shout loud enough. I can understand why, when IT fails can become lead story news, there may be a reluctance to put your head above the parapet and flag up that YOU think something is going to fail. This simply has to change.
The viewpoint of every member of every team is a vital data point.
What’s worse? A private acceptance and correction when something is wrong or a very public humiliation when the whole project collapses. More often, failures that you flag and attend to become lessons that lead to success.
AND that’s the point. All this “accountability” isn’t driving success, it’s creating a culture of fear where innovative project programmers are reining it in. They’re opting for the zero fireworks, zero fail safety route.
That leads to zero innovation when what we need is more moon shots.