By Jeremy Cox, Vanguard Consulting

Staff or manager, everyone has worked on projects that were clearly failing to all involved, yet officially presented as successes. What’s going on here?

The problem is systemic, applying to projects both digital (e.g. Universal Credit) and non-digital. It is rooted in the way organisations plan and manage change. Believing (wrongly) that their role is to act as specifiers and controllers, managers create structures and routines that focus effort on ‘making the plan come true’; including post-facto rationalisation to show that the plan has worked. In other word, projects are destined for success from the outset, whatever the objective result.

  • Business planning processes set up pre-determined deliverables, timescales and budgets for projects to achieve the annual plan. In a financial services organisation we found that more than half the IT budget was going on management overhead because the original deliverables were based on flawed assumptions and projects had to be constantly re-scoped and re-scheduled.

  • Because the ‘book of work’ has to be delivered to make the numbers in the business plan, organisations set up hierarchical reporting systems to ensure projects are on track. Juniors tell seniors what they want to hear, and so on all the way up the food chain. The reality when we study projects is that most ‘green’ projects are actually ‘red’ – the hierarchical feedback loop is fundamentally flawed.

  • Performance management based on on-time, on-budget delivery, produces perverse incentives for project managers to ‘make the plan come true’. Holding people to account for arbitrary time and cost targets leads them to de-scope and cut corners to get projects over the line and collect their bonus.

As well as these organisational system conditions, there are a number of psychological traps for the unwary. One is escalating commitment, when commitment to an existing course outweighs emerging indications that things are going wrong. Rather than altering course we ignore the signals or rationalise them away with compelling reasons for carrying on.

The net effect is that most projects, including digital projects, end up being, in the words of a client, ‘late, expensive and wrong’, yet officially a success. The ‘doomed to succeed’ problem is designed in to organisations largely because of conventional assumptions about the separation of management decision-making from work.

The way out is simple in principle and profound in practice.

First, change in service systems should always be structured as an emergent process.

Secondly, all change must be anchored in knowledge gained through systematic study and redesign.

Finally, managers need to give up trying to control change through plans, reports and meetings and begin to practice active leadership, leading processes of learning and improvement on the ground. Follow these principles and digital projects will start to shift from late, expensive and wrong to fast, cheap and effective. Instead of being doomed to succeed, digital projects will become opportunities to learn and improve.