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

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