Who is Responsible for Failed Projects, The Biz or IT?

Who is responsible for failed projects in your enterprise? I have found very few organizations with a ready answer to this allegedly simple question because it is anything but simple. At the risk of excusing a rampant lack of accountability, consider the following:

  • Most organizations don’t even use the “f-word” and failure is not even in their vernacular, let alone something they track http://bit.ly/9K9MDQ
  • Even if they use the f-word, I have found few organizations with a consistently applied definition of a “failed project”
  • Given the numerous if not countless number of people involved in most projects, how can you assign singular responsibility if the effort fails?

I’ve broached the subject of project failure on numerous occasions. My latest foray into this unpopular topic is inspired by an @standishgroup tweet I received last week:

  • 43% of IT executives believe the executive sponsor owns the responsibility of a failed project

There were a number of things about the tweet that instantly piqued my interest. The first aspect I found interesting was the use of the word “believe.” This implies the IT executives are of the opinion that the executive sponsor should be held responsible. The tweet does not answer the question of who is actually being held responsible. The second aspect was yet another implication: that these IT executives were being defensive and possibly deflecting the blame for failed projects. And the aspect I found most intriguing was, who do the other 57% believe is responsible?

I have personally experienced and continue to witness the finger-pointing between IT and the business when it comes to failed projects.  I can still remember efforts to establish the convention of assigning both a business-sponsor as well as an IT-sponsor to every project. As soon as we overcame that hurdle we ran smack dab into the next challenge of determining who was in-charge when. When our attempts to identify the responsibility boundaries and demarcations devolved into an Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine, we settled on the shared co-responsibility approach. We soon found ourselves right back at the square-one finger-pointing issue that launched us on our responsibility assignment quest in the first place. My guess is that the Standish Group tweet is along these same lines.

So who is responsible for failed projects? Is it the executive business sponsor who identifies and articulates the need and oversees its delivery? Or is it the executive IT sponsor who validates feasibility and defines and executes the means by which the endeavor will be accomplished? My answer: neither.

Before I give you my rejoinder we need to first fix the question. The question should not be who is responsible. Check out Merriam-Webster’s definition(s) of the word:


1a: liable to be called on to answer

1b: liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent

1c: liable to legal review or in case of fault to penalties

Projects fail for numerous reasons. How can one person be liable for the failure each and every time? The responsibility of the failure can only be determined in a post-mortem. The word that should be used in the question is accountable. Let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s definition:


1: subject to giving an account: answerable

I want to know who should be held accountable for a project failure. This is the person who is answerable independent of whomever or whatever is responsible for the failure. Though the executive business or IT sponsor could be responsible for the failure, I don’t necessarily hold them accountable. So who is accountable? The Executive Project and Portfolio Management (PPM) Steering Committee.

Recall their charter from one of my previous blog posts http://bit.ly/d68Ngz and the main activities associated with PPM (described in even more detail in another post http://bit.ly/9G1xzR):

  • Should we? Is the investment in the best interest of realizing our strategy?
  • Can we? Does our organization have the capacity and capability to undertake the investment?
  • Are we? Once approved, are we making the progress required to realize the projected value of the investment?
  • Did we? Once completed, did the investment deliver the expected value?

These are the questions that must be asked and answered by the PPM Executive Committee to ensure their portfolio of investments delivers appropriate value. This executive decision-making body decides if the effort should be approved in the first place. This group monitors project progress to ensure it is on track or if it needs fixing or killing. And this group is responsible for the benefits realization to determine if their other decisions were correct and achieved the desired outcome. I contend that if the project fails, then the PPM Executive Committee made an incorrect decision during the course of the project, and they should be held accountable.

If assigned accountability, this decision-making body will likely dig deep to determine responsibility for project failure. They will need to investigate the failure to determine:

  • Why did we approve the failed effort in the first place?
  • Why didn’t we fix or kill the project before it ended in failure?
  • What can we learn from this failure to improve our ability to make the decisions required to decrease the potential of future project failure?

I guarantee if you hold these executives accountable for project failures, they will be thoughtful and thorough before they approve projects. They will stay involved during project execution to ensure they are progressing as planned and the projected value is still attainable. They will ensure benefits realization processes are in place to prove they made the right decisions and learn from their wrong decisions. They will accomplish each of these critical objectives by fostering and performing the rigorous investment governance that only Project and Portfolio Management can provide.

Executive ownership of project success accountability and sound PPM practices will eliminate the finger-pointing that too often results from failed projects. And the less time we spend pointing fingers, the more time we can devote to solving the epidemic of project failures.

Published: December 21 2010, 10:09 AM
by Steve Romero @ CA

Article source: CA ITGovernance Blog

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