Is Your Company All Systems Go?

PLEASURE and pain. We’ve all experienced both. Sometimes you have to go through one to fully understand the other. Passing a driving test after failing the first. Getting a job having been turned down for others. Making it around the London Marathon course having been forced to give up through exhaustion the year before.

It applies to business too, as our recent Naked Leader week highlighted. And someone who has ‘suffered’ recent painful projects in the workplace is an avid follower of the Naked Leader, Brendan O’Sullivan.

Brendan wanted to share his observations with Naked Leader devotees in the hope of finding solutions. Have you got anything to say about the following? Read on.

His discomfort has come from within the workplace. He explains: ‘Given a couple of “painful” recent projects it got me thinking as to what was the most significant factor that makes a project fail in a large organisation?

‘My observations are that large companies have complex structures and processes. I equate these to traffic systems. They work okay under moderate stress, but if there is one significant breakdown or failure to operate within the rules of the road, then localised chaos ensues with varying degrees of impact around the incident

Brendan believes the analogy works on many levels and he adds:

‘There are three areas in particular.

1. We try to design our IT processes to eliminate choke points.
2. We sometimes concentrate on the quality and resilience of critical parts
of our processes more than other parts of the system.
3. It highlights the need for “emergency services” – although we don’t often
see much expenditure or attention in this area.

‘It’s easy to recognise and understand a car smash or a traffic jam being akin to a project that has hit the buffers,’ Brendan continues. ‘However, like dodgy traffic lights, or a faulty vehicle, projects exhibit symptoms long before the wheels come off! Disgruntled developers, disassociated sponsors and repeated failure to meet target dates, are typical warning signs.

‘So what sort of incident is most likely to muck up these sorts of systems? ‘Well, my belief is that the most common cause of large project failure is caused by two things. The first is people acting in a fashion that does not fully satisfy the expectations of the organisation’s “system”. And the second is failure to spot it until after the project is seriously maimed.’

Brendan goes on: ‘If the doctor attending a serious accident helped out with mopping up oil spills – people would die or suffer long-term damage unnecessarily. Road repairers directing traffic – instead of calling in the police – would cause worse problems due to their lack of communication with the traffic control centre that had visibility of the traffic flows in the surrounding areas. Etc, etc.

‘A typical way to prevent this happening is well known. Auditing of projects – but how many audits concentrate only on existence of signed-off documents?

‘What about customer and team member interviews? Risk and issue spot-check workshops? Background monitoring of warning signs such as missed deadlines? Personally I’d prefer to see a culture where projects can call in help early.

‘Culturally this is counter-intuitive. Individuals try to sort it out themselves, often compounding the problem by controlling the “message” rather than opening the debate to truly understand the problem.’

With a wealth of work experience, Brendan can speak with authority and he adds:

‘I’ve worked for six large organisations, none of which concentrated on their emergency services! Some had a few detectives (internal auditors) who investigated various disciplines, but none appeared to have anyone who could considered to be a holistic practitioner!

‘Even when audit teams/project office/project sponsors called in the “authorities”, the responses have been mixed. Little or no training is given on how to rescue either the individuals or cargos. No well-oiled, well-practised routine is triggered.

‘How often do the cavalry turn up much too late, so that the only practical assistance possible is to shovel up the still-smouldering ashes. Some organisations had the equivalent of storm-troopers who conducted project reviews – culminating in a report, citing catalogues of process and personal failings. I can’t think of one that offered the equivalent of a voluntary drop-in centre!

‘We would not be content living in a society that put little training and expertise into its emergency services so why do we accept this at work.’

Extremely interesting thoughts from Brendan there. Sounds like he is due a fair share of pleasure after a large dose of unwanted pain!

So, what are your thoughts? Have you anything to add to his comments? Have you had a project similarly scuppered because it was hi-jacked by a colleague and not properly managed? What did you do about it? Was the project saved?

The Naked Leader has always maintained that communication is the key. The simple act of discussion between the group, before it is too late, can be vital. To see the potential for problems and nip them in the bud, by communicating and managing effectively.

We would love to hear your thoughts. So please email your feedback to the Naked Leader, or me, Clive Barrett at


  • mary

    You have to say that each of us in a task are vital components to that task working. If people are left to their own devices on these matters then things can fail and, as mentioned in the article, things can quickly go wrong if they are not nipped in the bud. Keeping a task on track is the easy part, providing the task is managed properly. Otherwise just one small part going wrong can put the whoe thing at risk.

  • chris

    Businesses often don't tackle the problems before they arise. They are allowed to fester. One of the reasons I enjoy the Naked Leader is that it is about communication. It is about openness to ensure problems don't arise in the first place. That is what communication does. And it's about taking action to ensure a different path is taken. Change things that aren't going right and make sure you make the right choice to go where you need to go and do what you need to do.

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  • paul

    I like this article and it throws up a lot about what is wrong with companies today. There are ot enough people who are astute enough or canny enough to spot if there was something going wrong. And certainly not enough people would have the know how to sort it out before the situation got worse. Communication in companies isn't what it should be and it's wrong. People are too tied up in titles to think about what it is they should be doing to improve communication between people. Every business should be forced to have a half hour meeting with David Taylor and they would straight away see the error of their ways.

  • mark

    I don't understand why companies don't do more talking to their staff and it beggars belief that people have to sit back and watch a task fail because no one is taking control of it. Making the most of resources is great but they have to be managed as there is going to be tears in the end. How frustrating when a cog in the wheel doesn't act as they should do and how they are expected to.

  • paul

    Staff need to be talking a lot more to each other. It's a problem that needs to be sorted out nationwide. End of story.

  • chris

    I can relate to the problem experienced by Brendan. I too work in an industry that is reliant on the individuals becoming a team and working as such to gain a result. There are often incidents of mis-management that go unheeded and it is extremely frustrating when nothing is done about it. Where the problems lie is that age-old problem of not speaking to one another and some too scared to speak up or out for fear of losing their job. It is very much the companies who have the trump hand as they know the workers are there to be exploited.

  • chris

    Talking to each other may be the key but too many companies have staff that aren't prepared for it. They are not able to communicate because they feel in competition with each other so therefore are loathe to try and help their colleagues. It is something that is not easy to rectify. In the business world it is dog eat dog and programmes such as The Apprentice proves this. So you can't always blame company culture. It too can be the fault of individuals and it's soomething we have to accept.

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