Despite advances in development methods, planning tools and data management capabilities there is plenty of evidence to suggest that project failure rates have not changed markedly over the last 20 years. As anyone who has been there will tell you, it is not nice being part of a troubled project. For instance, look at the English Test and Trace app:
‘’Last Thursday, the 160 people who had spent three months working 18-hour days and seven-day weeks on the app were invited to a video call with… the head of the UK’s test and tracing programme. Their project..was being abandoned. The government had decided to develop a rival one based on Apple and Google’s technology. People were shocked — and furious”
A November 2020 video clip shows calls for further changes in test and trace leadership:
“..has achieved a huge amount ..but capability needs to move up several gears, it’s what leadership does not what it is that matters’’.
Of course, projects are inherently risky and there is little doubt that ‘Test and Trace’, will reach its goals in the end. After all, the Channel Tunnel operates, the Scottish Parliament sits and Boston’s ‘Big Dig’ finished digging . More often than not, projects face some kind hurdle before achieving goals and hitting KPIs; yet this journey is frequently marked by wasted resources and sub-optimal results. Most significantly, as the opening quotations show, impacts are often expressed in people and team terms. Reputational damage features in the mix; perhaps corporately, but most frequently at a personal level. The ex-CEOs of Boeing and TSB perhaps play testament to this dimension.
I asked a group of people what project turnaround meant and bumped into phrases like ‘recovering technical debt’. Of course, technical debt reduction and the application of best practice is a good thing – but I don’t agree with this. It is when confidence in the project is lacking that project or programme recovery is a likely prospect. Notably, soft factors such as ‘confidence’ are generally less evident in traditional project recovery guides and methods – perhaps as they are harder to make practically explicit than the need for, by way of example, a baselined plan.
As such, the focus for project recovery should be on a people centred approach to achieving an acceptable outcome within an acceptable time. The less tangible combined confidence/time factor is the critical dimension in the overall recovery recipe.
NTT DATA’s Approach to Project Recovery
At NTT DATA we often work with clients and project sponsors to investigate and then recover projects that have encountered trouble. With several years of experience in this field, I have worked with my colleagues to produce an approach that can address both the soft and hard aspects of recovery. The approach works over four phases and importantly operates the confidence/time and best practice dimensions as a separate but co-ordinated stream. Specific tools, templates and guides have been developed to enable the approach:
- The first step triages and applies first aid to the initiative to stop matters getting any worse. Signals are then sent that things are going to change.
- Triage activity then points to one of several recovery routes depending on the severity of the situation. The best finding (Green) is that application of good practice remedial activities are needed along with some on-going project/programme assurance. Worst case (Black) means that there is no way to recover confidence within an acceptable timeframe and the project/programme needs to be relaunched in some capacity.
- A triage/diagnosis specific Recovery Blueprint enables design of the appropriate turnaround and oversight of its execution. Importantly, a separate mechanism ensures that the confidence/time dimension is actively managed and tracked in parallel. This is a key means for the Sponsor and intervention expert to interact and work together: ultimately it makes the implicit, explicit.
- The final element is to work to ensure that ‘collateral damage’, an inevitable consequence of difficult projects, is managed effectively to protect the integrity of the project and key stakeholder reputations
Turning around projects is often all consuming work; it is certainly hard and stressful. Not only are business financial and customer outcomes at stake, so too are reputations and, sometimes even jobs.
The key message is that the earlier a problem is identifed and reviewed, the better. Here at NTT DATA we work across multiple industry and public sector fields and can offer a powerful combination of practitioner expertise, fresh thinking and ready to go collateral.
Please feel free to get in touch to discuss this further and to see how NTT DATA could support your project recovery.