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Why Tech Projects Flop and How to Fix Them! A Recovering Federal CIO’s Perspective

Let me start with some background. I have been at CXO levels in technology for a number of years. My last “tech” job was as the Federal CIO of US Department of Transportation (US DOT) where I had the oversight of an annual $3b+ of technology investment portfolio, with over 3,000+ tech employees and 10,000+ tech contractors with 200+ tech systems. I now lead ScaleUP USA’s “Federal Business Growth Acceleration” program for US public and private sector organizations. What I am discussing here in this article is part of this digital program.

Risk Vs. Reward:

Positions of high responsibility come with high risk. Execute well and you are a hero. Execute badly and you are “out” of the door. I was always in search of the magic bullet that will ensure my success on a continuing basis and this led me to define the predictive “Technology Happiness Index (THI)” which helped me drive my career success.

Defining Success:

Let me start with defining success. In the current business environment, a technology initiative or a technology project is successful, if it is implemented on time, budget, and meets or exceeds the specifications, and wow’s the customers and leadership. Further, in ideal situations, such technology initiatives are easy to implement, maintain and upgrade and are strong on cybersecurity and privacy of data.

Technology Happiness Index:

Now let me elaborate on the Technology Happiness Index and its predictive quality. It will go a long way in making business and technology leaders like you deliver on success.

(a) Problem Quality:

Business and technology leaders have a plethora of problems to solve. What problems they select for technology-based solutions have a huge bearing on the success of the initiative. In my experience, recurring, targeted, intensely painful problems affecting a large portion of the organization, its customers or partners are ideal opportunities for problem-solving using technology. Vague problems affecting the narrow band of people or irrelevant problems championed for internal political reasons have low success. Solutions in search of problems always fail!

(b) Solution Quality:

Clearly, delivering a quality solution is essential for successful technology implementation. The important question here is what is a quality solution? That depends on the problem. Technology solutions can be delivered in three fashions, Custom Built, Integrated Systems or Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) products or platforms. Let us evaluate these options at the end and come up with a formula for success.

(c) Transformative Culture:

Innovation creates excitement, collaboration creates opportunities, but transformation creates results. Transformation is defined as a “thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” To achieve it we need both human and technology components. Human mind looks for fresh, sleek, improved and flexible solutions. If you are planning to introduce older, low quality, “me too” kind of commodity technology solutions, then you may fail. Look at interesting and more cost-effective, exciting offering such as “Transformation as a Service” to deliver continuous innovation, entrepreneurship and internal culture change.

(d) Implementation Speed:

Speed matters. Over time, the original problem morphs, solutions become outdated, user requirements change, management and sponsors move on, budgets get cut, new politics gets injected and most importantly “you” the leader of the initiative may not be there to drive it and all the hard work is fruitless. All of these changes are recipes for a complete disaster. Therefore, speed up technology project implementation, manage technology projects in discrete independent phases, have a clear customer focused end results for each phase and select the optimum type of solution for problem-solving. Important — Buy versus build when possible!

(e) Reduced TCO:

Wikipedia defines Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) as the financial estimate intended to help buyers and owners determine the direct and indirect costs of a technology product or system. We live in a perpetual era of scarcity. In my 25 years of technology career not once was I told I had all the resources I wanted. In fact, most of the time I got “unfunded mandates” requiring IT to produce solutions with no money provided for fulfilling the requirements. Thus, technology projects that hog resources during development, production or upgrade are out. Ready-made or COTS projects are normally in!

Selecting Winning Solutions?

Organizations have three distinct types of options for technology solutions: custom development, COTS products or platforms, and systems integration. Let us evaluate these in detail.

(a) Custom Development:

This option normally has the lowest “Technology Happiness Index.” Custom development projects normally target complex, many times unrelated, unfocused problems where COTS solutions are unavailable. It is impossible to gauge the quality of custom projects upfront, plus the speed of implementation is slowest, while the cost of development, maintenance, and upgrade are highest. Finally, rarely is there any innovation in these types of solutions due to the cost of development. Avoid custom solutions unless they are specifically required for strategic advantage or to drive mission activities! Where ever possible productize custom solutions through programs such as the “product factory.”

(b) Commercial Off the Shelf:

COTS technology products or platforms encompass needs of many, so they are more versatile, innovative, better tested and easier to maintain and upgrade. The development cost is spread over many customers so typically they cost a fraction of the other options. Finally, the implementation speed, transformative technology component and ease of procurement are excellent. My general rule of thumb is, if a COTS product solves 60-70 percent of your key requirements today, implement it and push the vendor for addressing the balance 30-40 percent in future versions.

(c) Integrated Systems:

This is a combination of custom built and COTS solutions. A systems integrator is a company that specializes in bringing these two components into a whole and ensuring that those subsystems function together. I like systems integrators who have access to a portfolio of transformative COTS products for integration into a complete solution like what GOVonomy, one of my company provides. This access improves the quality of the solution, its innovativeness, differentiation, the speed of implementation while reducing the overall TCO. Such an approach is a healthy middle ground when direct COTS products installation is not an option and custom development is too risky.

Nitin Pradhan

Nitin Pradhan

Nitin Pradhan is the former award-winning CIO of the US Department of Transportation, the CEO of ScaleUP USA a microlearning based digital business accelerator and the Managing Partner of GOVonomy, a Transformation as a Service. He is also a Mentor at Mach 37 a Cyber Accelerator and on the External Advisory Board of Accenture.