How IT Leaders Can Use Past Failure To Fuel Their Future Success

How far would you go for something you don’t believe will succeed? As an IT leader, how much can you push your organization to embrace your project if you, the person who started it, doubt it will achieve its intended purpose? Would you really give your best to something you don’t trust?

Not many people would, yet that’s exactly the situation we face in IT today. According to the software development firm Geneca, 75% of IT project leaders believe their own projects are “doomed right from the start.

So why do people think their projects, which have yet to be started, are headed for the drain? The most common stated reasons: lack of business involvement, shifting requirements, and fuzzy business objectives. But is that all? I believe that this lack of confidence is also a product of IT leaders’ own past experiences. Just about all CIOs, CTOs, and IT department managers have something in common: They’ve all been part of a failed IT project at one time or another. Although this may not surprise anybody, the impact that past failures have on IT leaders’ level of confidence is shocking.

Fear that the past will repeat itself haunts IT Leaders every day

As we’ve discussed in recent blog posts, your memory for events that had a significant emotional impact on you will be very easy to recall. If your current project scenario reminds you of a past failure, your brain is wired to relate the new project with failure as well. In other words, skepticism about our IT projects’ chance of success can actually increase the likelihood of failure.

So the question is: what can you do to overcome skepticism and regain confidence that your own projects will succeed? Here are some of our recommendations:

  1. 1. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

It is a common misconception that in failure, you learn nothing. Quite the opposite. If we pay attention, there are many lessons to be learned from failure. Instead of allowing past disappointments to undermine the outcome of your future projects, analyze the reasons why your project can fail. Don’t be reluctant to talk openly about what you have learned from past failures. Create a culture within your IT department where past failure is perceived as an opportunity to learn and grow. One way to do this is to schedule post-mortem meetings for every project, no matter how big or small.

Make sure the following points get discussed:

– What were the main challenges you had to address during the project?

– What did you do to overcome them? What worked and what didn’t work?

– What could have been done better?

– How do we incorporate the lessons learned from this project to other projects?

Make sure you assign one person to plan and lead these meetings. This person should report main findings back to you and work on a plan to address all challenges.

  1. 2. Know what obstacles you may face, and make a plan to overcome them beforehand.

Getting information about why IT projects typically fail in your organization or why people perceive them as failures should not take long. Make a list, build a plan to tackle each of them and socialize it.

IT Leaders - Failure is part of successIf you don’t know where to start, here are the most common reasons why large IT projects fail according to the Project Management Institute:

– Unclear objectives/lack of business focus

– Unrealistic schedule/reactive planning

– Shifting requirements/technical complexity

– Unaligned team/missing skills

To that list, I would add lack of clear expectations and lack of clear communication.

Make sure you receive 360 degree feedback. Anonymous surveys are a great way to capture feedback from your team and other teams.

  1. 3. Focus on early adoption – start with yourself!

Don’t expect buy-in from your intended end-users if you don’t believe your project will succeed or if you don’t really understand what’s motivating the investment. Create a plan to build engagement among stakeholders and leadership to ensure their support. Align your plan to your business goals. Knowing that you have a plan for success, and are following it, will help you recover the confidence you need to push for the right outcomes for your organization.

  1. 4. Celebrate wins and be loud about it

In IT, we have the bad habit of not celebrating our wins. That’s partly because people see IT as “keeping the lights on,” so if everything is working correctly there is nothing to be proud about; it’s our job. Wrong! Everything we do helps our organizations remain competitive and ensures our customers receive the services they need. It is time to start changing the perception of IT in your organization and instead of assuming your business colleagues “won’t get it” or “already get it,” start focusing on how to explain the business value your projects are providing to the organization. Shift your focus and start communicating in terms of outcomes. In the end, I guarantee you are doing more than what others think.

Once you’ve identified potential wins, reach out to your communication department and ask for help. Inquire about all the communication channels available in your organizations (i.e. magazines, newsletters, lunch and learns, videos, posters, etc.), and build a plan to start communicating your wins.

Failure is a part of life – and not just in IT. Failure doesn’t define us, nor our organizations; but how we choose to learn from it does.

Instead of allowing past disappointments to undermine your future success, accept the lessons your failures are trying to teach you, and make sure they show up in your next IT project plan. For guidance on how to craft that plan so it maximizes your chance of a successful implementation, or just to chat about your own organization’s situation, get in touch.

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