5 ways to derail IT transformation projects

Whether you’re moving data centers, rearchitecting networks or transforming something else, there are some common ways to make your life more difficult.

number five
Zbysiu Rodak (CC0)

Projects involving virtualization, cloud architectures, advanced networking and cutting-edge digital technologies are critical to pushing a company into the future. As a result, missteps can be costly. Take a good idea on paper, execute it poorly, and your desire to create value will end up squandering value.

Given the complexity of IT transformation projects, there are many ways to get them wrong. If you've ever been called upon to assist companies stuck in the middle of such projects (as has our team, many times) it’s easy enough to identify several sure-fire ways to derail them – and corresponding ways to keep them on track. Here are five:

1. Trivialize the effort required

Have you ever sat in a meeting and heard an executive dismiss the difficulty of a project? "That sounds easy!," he or she might say. Whether it’s a desire for the project to be completed, a lack of knowledge about the details, the planning fallacy or some other error, following that lead is a good way to set yourself up for failure.

Instead, take the project at face value and accurately estimate the effort required. Then match budget and resources. If you don’t have the resources, reset your expectations. You don’t want to start the project, only to find that you’ve led your company into the desert. Those who cause project overruns and delays don't always get a second chance. Before you start overcommitting, make sure you have as much information as possible. Get a detailed assessment of the infrastructure you need to transform, for instance, and make sure you know what resources you are working with.

2. Increase complexity unnecessarily

If you’re setting out to tackle a transformation project, it’s common to run into internal stakeholders who offer to expand the project’s scope. Your colleagues say: "If we are doing that, we should also do this!" But unless you have the proper expectations and resources lined up, avoid those discussions. Mission creep is a proven way to knock your project off the rails.

Be protective of the core mission, especially in the face of deadlines. If you muddy the waters by adding complexity, you may end up not fulfilling your mandate. It’s fine to look for easy wins, but you have to guard against them turning into full-blown sub-tasks within your project, adding scope that is not in the budget. At the same time, however, make sure all critical items are included.

3. Complete the project on time under budget, at all costs

You completed your datacenter or network migration. You did it within budget and on time. Congratulations! But can operations run day-to-day in a sustainable way? Or did you create a dozen non-replicable one-offs? Did you skimp on security?

Consumer credit reporting agency Equifax had a well-documented security breach in September 2017. Six months later, it reported spending well over $200 million (and counting) as a consequence. The total impact extends beyond that amount, including damaged reputation and opportunity costs. Note well: what might seem like too much work or expense at the time could save you from a very costly remediation period. Think through what you are transforming. Involve those who will be running day-to-day operations and bring in a third-party security expert who can give unbiased expertise to make sure you are adequately covered.

4. Don't worry about personnel

Your IT team already has the job of running its own operations. Asking them to take on the additional role of transforming the business is a tall order. They might not have the capacity or skills to complete the task. Transformation projects are a major cause of employee churn, both voluntary (because the project is causing too much chaos and stress) and involuntary (because they took risks that the project required, the results were bad, and they lost their job).

I've seen transformation projects fail and succeed on account of the project manager. Having somebody who can manage complexity is key. The right team will give you the right results. Talking to a service provider who specializes in the area you are looking to transform is a good idea. Not only can they augment your team so you have a better chance of success, with proven people who have done that type of project numerous times, but they can also buffer you from any negative effects that might result from having taken on a risky project.

5. Forget about strategy

Watch out if you’re starting a major project for a superficial or tactical reason. Why are you moving to the cloud? Simply because everybody else seems to be doing it? Or does it give you a clear business advantage?

Make sure the project matches your longer-term strategy. Think through the contingencies so that you can adjust on the fly when things don't go as planned. Set the right expectations and strive to over-deliver. With a well-thought-out roadmap, you have a better chance of getting the resources required. You will have more time to advocate for what is needed within your organization before taking on the task. If you have the right tools, you can do just about anything. With the wrong tools, even simple jobs become burdensome.

Choose the better way

Ambitious goals and industry hype have raised the stakes on IT and digital transformation. Over-optimism, mission creep, shortsightedness, stressed personnel and tactical thinking make these projects more likely to spin out of control, crash and burn.

Of course, there’s no way to eliminate all hindsight-20/20 regret. Unanticipated issues will still give you sleepless nights and heartburn. But If you estimate correctly the effort required, stick to your mission while including all critically related elements, choose the right team and think strategically, you will have a better chance of completing these projects and delivering their benefits to your organization.

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