How to make big plans work out (even when many of them don't)

If you're one of the growing number of enlightened advocates for strategic change, or caught up in the middle of an initiative, or managing a strategic initiative at a day-to-day level, or on a more executive level, then here are some ideas that might give you an indication if things are going well or badly - or if things aren't so rosy, how to right the ship.

Probably the single biggest thing that stood out to me as I reviewed our IT consulting guidance on CMDB System deployments, service catalog deployments, and plans for end-to-end application and service management strategies, is how consistent the reasons for failure are.

In other words, most strategic IT initiatives have common grounds for failure, and by implication, common grounds for success. And the sad truth is that most of them don’t succeed to live up to their initial high expectations. According to one of our consulting sources: “More than 75% of IT projects fail, either by providing too little functionality or overrunning cost and time estimates.”

This is not surprising, and in fact not necessarily an argument against “strategic big plans” versus “tactical surgical” efforts. For one, most strategic goals not only include technology challenges, but also usually require improvements in IT processes and often even organizational habits and boundaries. These last are among the most intractable, but to abdicate to old habits is, well, abdication to a less effective way of working, because IT is going through a much-needed, slow-burning revolution towards a more service-aligned model.If you’re one of the growing number of enlightened advocates for strategic change, or caught up in the middle of an initiative, or managing a strategic initiative at a day-to-day level, or on a more executive level, then here are some ideas that might give you an indication if things are going well or badly - or if things aren’t so rosy, how to right the ship:

• Develop sufficiently detailed requirements. Big plans may require a little dreaming, but they also require a lot of hard work and attention to detail. Vague mandates from on high – sometimes communicated primarily through e-mail – are almost guarantees for failure. Detailed plans should step back enough from the “dream” to parse out tangible, first-phase goals and a long-term structure for achieving success. Developing these plans usually requires attention to most of the recommendations below. And good plans should include good metrics that appropriately gauge the progress of the initiative. Whether or not these are ROI-specific or not may depend on the initiative and where you are in its deployment.

• Pay attention to process. It’s great to see that IT is paying a lot more than lip service to how people work, and macro-economic conditions are only likely to reinforce the need for efficiency and collaboration. However, many strategic efforts get launched in a kind of Wild West manner, with a focus on process going in parallel or sadly ignored. Conversely, a “by-the-book ITIL initiative” can fail just as easily if it isn’t coupled with flexibility and dialog. As stands repeating, ITIL is a departure point, not a bible.

• Make sure you have executive support. Once you’ve gotten some of your homework done, it’s time to plan for a budget (see the next bullet) and get solid executive buy-in. This may sound obvious, but quite often “big plans” have their seeds at the mid-managerial level and never truly get the support of key executives. Some of the reasons – well, here are two quotes from EMA clients:

“Major IT initiatives are risky and often put an executive’s reputation on the line.”

“The last big project like this failed because the CTO left during the project.” Sadly, executive churn, is one of the leading reasons for big plans to go awry.

• Get commitment for a budget that transcends the project level. This is particularly important once an IT-wide strategic initiative gets beyond initial planning into first-phase or second-phase deployment. Truly strategic objectives need to be treated as part of the ongoing IT budget and will get stalled in iterative project-funding debates which tend to minimize their enabling value and trivialize them into tactical, ephemeral expeditions.

• Get staff buy-in. Communication and dialog are all around at the core of succeeding with “big dreams.” But many IT professionals are resistant at some level to change. It’s just human nature, and especially human nature in high-pressured IT environments surviving day-to-day in reactive mode. Here are four quotes from EMA clients to underscore the point:

“We live in the moment. We are very operations-oriented.”

“Most groups don’t respect what other groups do.”

“We are tactical, action-oriented people, and the (CMDB / Service Catalog / fill in the blank) is too strategic.”

“Show me this isn’t a boondoggle.”

• Manage expectations. As hard as it is to sell a “dream” or a “strategy” to tactically obsessed worker bees and harried executives, once you get their enthusiasm up, you’ve set yourself up for a fall if you don’t actively manage expectations. In my CMDB System visitations, I’ve seen a number of deployments trying to get beyond “stakeholder consumer enthusiasm” to “stakeholder active participation” – to help support the effort. In other words, you can experience a kind of Sorcerer’s Apprentice frustration once you get buy-in and enthusiasm to consume the benefits of what you’re doing, but very little active support to help you carry it out.

• Follow through. In case you haven’t figured it out already, strategic initiatives require iterative communication, planning, and ongoing levels of creativity and funding. Follow-through in terms of communicating to executives can be especially critical – since EMA consulting estimates that most executives have about six-month attention spans for new initiatives. Here are a few relevant quotes taken from our clients.

“We are really bad at follow-up and training on new tools going into the infrastructure.”

“Our priorities change constantly.”

“We have a lack of political will and a reluctance to make it happen.”

I know this may seem like an onerous list of concerns, even if it’s short. And even if it’s just the beginning point of thinking about how to implement your “dreams” for making truly significant improvements in network operations, infrastructure management, the data center, applications management, or wherever you happen to be. But don’t give up. In spite of some of the financial meltdowns around us, and to some real degree because of it, the tide is with you if you want to promote better, more effective ways of getting things done – even when they do require significant initial investments.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.