Book Review: "Troubled IT Projects" by John M. Smith

Introduction

This excellent book aims to show how “troubled” projects can be turned-around and more importantly, prevented in the first place. Smith’s first task is to define what he means by a “troubled” project - namely one that has one or more of the following characteristics:

  • exceeds (or is planned to exceed) more than 50% of the original timescale, excluding agreed changes in scope;
  • exceeds (or is planned to exceed) more than 35% of the original budget, excluding agreed changes in scope;
  • causes major dissatisfaction to the buyer;
  • causes lack of commitment from the vendor;
  • fails to support the intended business processes;
  • fails to support the benefits stated in the business case;
  • does not result in a win-win situation for the buyer and vendor.

Overview

The book is divided into four parts:

  1. Why projects fail – a list of the forty root-causes of project failure;
  2. Prevention in planning – how to prevent a project becoming troubled in the first place;
  3. Review in delivery – how to detect if a project is troubled, or whether it is likely to become so;
  4. Turnaround and learning: a mechanism for turning-round a troubled project and ways of improving learning – in the widest sense – to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Case Study

The case study is a surprising one for an IT book - that of the world’s then-largest ship, the Great Eastern, built in the late eighteen-fifties. It is a salutary lesson in how the engineering genius of its designer, Brunel <link>, was coupled with some of his poor financial and business decisions that lead to a disastrous start to this early systems-engineering project.

Prevention in Planning

Returning to IT-related matters, the section on prevention at the planning stage is the largest in the book. This is not surprising, as the author believes that twenty-four of the forty root-causes of troubled projects occur in the planning phase. In fact, the author goes as far as giving an excellent sales primer for those unfamiliar with the sales process!

The following are covered in detail:

  • Targetting opportunities to maximise your win-rate;
  • Buyer engagement and bid planning;
  • Shaping and refining the solution;
  • Estimating the project’s plan and budget and negotiating the contract;
  • Managing quality and risk – Smith's collaborative approach to risk is reminiscent of the the T5 project;
  • Writing and submitting the proposal  – the author gives detailed examples of writing a proposal and subsequent presentation.

Reviewing in Delivery

The second-largest section in the book concerns the auditing of on-going projects to establish whether they are un-troubled, already-troubled, or at risk of becoming so.

While the author apologies for the checklist-driven nature of this section of the book, this format is likely to be highly useful to most readers. The checklists encompass activities to:

  • Determine whether the project is on target do deliver the scope of work:
    • within the delivery dates agreed contractually;
    • within the budget agreed contractually;
    • to the quality agreed contractually.
  • Detect problems early to prevent the project becoming “troubled”  - for example step-changes in the estimated cost to complete indicates a major re-plan (see diagram);
  • Investigate the root causes of an already-troubled project in order to provide input to a turnaround activity;
  • Review project risk register and any contingency actions that have been made in the style of Dewar;
  • Capture lessons learnt for future projects.

 

estimated cost to complete

He correctly states that, throughout this exercise, the focus should be firmly on delivering stakeholder value, a key component of Lean.

It should be pointed out that Smith assumes the waterfall software-development process as the norm; this is sensible, as the book is firmly aimed at large systems-engineering projects. There only nod to agile methodologies is a mention of RAD (Rapid Application Development) techniques. Smith coins a marvellous expression of “galloping elegance”, as one of the risks in a RAD development is the quest for the perfect user-interface.

Turnaround

The final section of the book details approaches of how to turn-around a troubled project. The author makes the pertinent comment as a scene-setter – that in all the turnaround strategies he has been involved in, none has resulted in the project being delivered to the original plan’s scope, time and cost. A dispassionate reader may not find this surprising but in a pressured project environment, the fact is worth stating at the outset otherwise unrealistic expectations may remain.

Smith suggests a series of buyer/vendor workshops with the aim of:

  • determining root-causes and a mechanism for tackling them;
  • improving the performance of delivery team;
  • re-shaping the project plan to deliver tangible business value at an acceptable cost and acceptable timescales, resulting in a revised business plan;
  • regaining control of the project and the re-establishment of sound project governance.

He suggests the following work activities:

  1. Analyse the current position (vendor-led): this activity takes the findings of the last project review (including any recommendations and the costs to implement these) and examines the root causes, project assets, financials, plans and risk register.
  2. Define the target position (buyer-led): this activity reviews the original target position and determines a feasible target position from a short-list.  The business case is re-shaped and if this looks feasible, then activity 3) is skipped.
  3. Evaluate the strategic options (jointly-led): If a target position cannot be agreed in activity 2), then project re-shaping options are brainstormed (Smith helpfully gives a list of possible options as a starting-point, eg consideration of the use of a functional pilot) and several costed candidate turnaround strategies are prepared. A SWOT analysis is performed and the best-looking one refined into a re-shaped business case. If this is not feasible then the parties look to its exit strategies
  4. Generate plans and endorse strategy (jointly-led): Assuming that the parties are still hanging in there, this activity refines the plans, business case and mission statement, gets senior management buy-in and relaunches the project.

This eminently sensible method is more likely to have a mutually-beneficial outcome than the “conventional” one - that is, to continue with the original “troubled” approach but with some combination of more staff/more money/more time.

Summary

The book is written in a brisk, concise style with numerous case-studies – many from the author’s part work experiences. To his credit, Smith is unafraid to describe his failures as well as his successes. The viewpoint is firmly on the systems-engineering project perspective, rather than purely software-engineering; in addition, these are large, mission-critical projects.

The sub-title of “prevention and turnaround” is slightly misleading as this book exceeds expectations by being a primer to how run successful projects from the earliest stages – as well as showing how to fix problems later in the project lifecycle. Highly recommended.

Afterthought 

At Agilier. we specialise in project turnaround - please contact us for more information.

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