Why do SharePoint Projects Fail? – Part 7

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Hi all

Welcome to the 7th post on this series delving into the murky depths of SharePoint project failure. I’m sure that even if you haven’t used SharePoint, or been involved in a SharePoint project, most will have experiences of being sore and sorry from a project gone bad and the content presented in this series thus far has been somewhat familiar.

Speaking of sore and sorry, I am writing this post days after buying the kids a Nintendo Wii. I’m not a geek-toy kind of guy, so I’m usually a little behind when it comes to consumer gadgets, but what a brilliant product it is. I am completely addicted to Wii Sports (especially the tennis and baseball), but after two days, I am feeling muscle ache like I have never felt before. I can barely move!

So I’d better stop playing that damn game and get back to business. In the unlikely event that you are hitting article seven for the first time, I suggest you go back and read this series from the start. You will learn all about tequila slammers, why Microsoft is like Britney Spears, Bill Gates selling SharePoint to Sergei Brin and the wonderful land of chocolate where projects never fail.

More recently, we targeted the infrastructure and development geeks in posts five and six. Now it’s time to cast our lens over the guys who control the budgets and get paid way more than you and I. So of course it is the project sponsor and senior management in general 🙂

This post will definitely come across as the most idealistically naive of the series and will drift away from SharePoint again and back to people and personalities. To write from a position of authority about the management contribution to project failure, one has to have been in the management role. Given that I have never been the CEO of an organisation larger than two people, I thought I’d better call in an old friend to help me on this one – but I’ll get to that later:-)  

Ideally, this should be the last post in this series, because looking at project failure from a senior management and organisational strategy point of view is where the buck stops really. But alas, based on some of the fantastic feedback from readers around the world, I think there will be at least one more before I am finally spent 🙂

Senior Managers: Can’t live with them, can’t live with them…

Let’s get all the cheap-shots in early – I am a product of the senior managers who I have worked with, so I am interested in how close my observations are to yours.

Managers eh? Are coffee, redbull and tequila shots enough? Hell no! How about stress balls and voodoo dolls? I don’t think so. In fact the only effective cure I personally have ever known for bad managers is panadeine forte and if that fails, changing jobs. I say this because I can attribute pretty much every stress-related headache I’ve ever had, partly to someone with the word "…manager" in their job title.

In general the higher up you go in an organisation, the lower the computer literacy gets. But paradoxically the size and cost of their barely used laptop goes up proportionately also. Once you are at CEO and board level, you have lost so much tech savvy that even the photocopier is a bit of a challenge. Sending a fax? Forget it – that’s what personal assistants are for, right?

But the laptop/toy thing… Senior Managers are like peacocks in the golden wing lounge of an airline. The unspoken battle of who has the smallest laptop and fanciest corporate toys goes on in earnest, despite most of them not being able to explain anything more than how much they weigh…

At this point I feel its only fair to give readers the CEO view. So I hand the reins of this article to a former CEO of mine who I have a great deal of respect for. I was in at the very beginning of one of his businesses (first employee), and I feel much wiser for the experience. On top of 10 years in Silicon Valley, he has successfully started and sold three businesses, been a senior manager at a Fortune 500 company in the USA, has an MBA and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Executive Education Program.

Taking a 30,000 foot view from a CEO or Senior Management level into IT or SharePoint project failures probably highlights some of the criticisms of management losing their technical knowledge or technical literacy as they progress further up the management hierarchy.

Running a business, division, group or function within an organization requires a completely different perspective than implementing a technology or making a technical decision.

As a senior manager your job is about building consensus around the business strategy and implementing strategy within your group or division. Whether the strategy is created by you or more likely driven by a board, shareholders, competitors or management more senior to you, a manager needs to consider the business requirements and strategic goals first not the technology choices available. Even for a CIO or CTO.

I mean if the business doesn’t hit its cost, revenue or profit targets, eventually we are all in the same line at social security.

I personally focus very little time on what technology is implemented. That’s what I hire smart managers for and what they hire smart techs to determine.

If they cannot do this job for me, then there are plenty of other jobs around for them to do…outside this company!

Nothing is more annoying and frustrating early in a project life cycle than when a CRM or ERP or Enterprise Content Management (ECM) project is communicated to me as a Microsoft SharePoint, SAP or Oracle project even before the full requirements for the project are determined.

Do you actually have a clue as to what we want to achieve with this project from a business perspective?

Ensuring the business requirements of the project are clearly defined, consensus and agreement amongst stakeholders is realized and clearly communicating the process changes the new systems will create are what I see as key requirements for a successful project and key requirements for making the correct technology decisions.

Do most techs care about this or are they more interested in padding their Resume with more qualifications? Do manager’s focus on best practices or are they convinced by great advertising and corporate lunches (read articles on consumer buying behaviour)? Does the organization have an incentive structure in place that adequately rewards project, therefore business successes, and punishes the opposite?

It’s not as simple as what technology is best. If that was the case, I wouldn’t be constantly hearing about IT projects taking twice as long to complete or costing twice as much as budgeted or not delivering the benefits expected.

There! The big boss has told it like it is! Note that my learnered CEO friend mentioned "building consensus around strategy".

If you would like know more about the skills and competencies required for a truly effective global manager, check this post. For the rest of us, let’s examine strategy some more…

Organisational Strategy (and Nintendo Wii)

If I ask you to tell me your organisation’s strategy, can you answer it off the top of your head? Now be careful here, if your answer was something like "we sell Britney Spears CD’s" you have misinterpreted my question. I’m not asking you what your organisation does, I’m asking for your organisation’s strategy. (And clearly, selling Britney Spears CD’s is probably not a smart long-term strategy).

I’m sorry it seems I can’t write a SharePoint post without making Britney Spears jokes! I can’t help it – its a compulsion! Mind you, if you’re a Britney fan, you should be used to it by now anyway 🙂

Do you want an example to make the "strategy" question clearer? Then you need to go no further than the very console game that is hurting my arm as I write this – the Nintendo Wii.

Before the Wii came out, Sony’s PS2 reigned supreme, selling some hundred-million-billion units. Microsoft had thrown its hat into the ring with the XBox with moderate success (mind you, is a 4 billion dollar loss a success?) and Nintendo was there in 3rd place with the GameCube. Microsoft then released XBox 360, packed with more power and graphic capabilities, directly targeting Sony’s dominance. Sony meanwhile released the PS3, also crammed with more ‘grunt’, building on the formula that made the Playstation brand so successful. Both Microsoft and Sony were playing the "mine is bigger than yours" game, upping the ante in terms of processing power, graphics engines and the like. But the basic formula of a game console was unchanged.

What did Nintendo do? After the relatively flat sales of the GameCube, they could have abandoned their ‘cutesy’ heritage and attempted to play the same "pissing in the wind" game with Sony/Microsoft and had Mario and Luigi "poppin a cap in yo ass" in "Grand Theft Auto" style.

Can you picture that? (It’s clear someone did – just doesn’t work does it?)

(Broken image alert – sucks to be you if your organisation blocks youtube)

So what was Nintendo’s strategy? They shunned graphics, power and went solely for *fun*. "So?", you say, "The GameCube and N64 did the same thing and were a poor cousin to the Playstation in terms of sales". But they added an extra gameplay element – the WiiRemote – a whole new gaming experience.

The result is that the Wii has completely smashed Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s XBox 360. It has now shipped some 25 million units since its release. Furthermore, if you don’t shop early on the day stock arrives, then forget about getting your hands on one of the consoles! – at least in Australia.

PS3 has gone from top seller to third place. The XBox360 has been a solid improvement by Microsoft, but it’s clear they were too caught up in the strategy of out-playstationing the Playstation. Wii basically snuck up under everybody’s nose and have completely stolen the show.

…and I bought one too.

So there you have it. Strategy 101 – Nintendo Wii

Organisational Strategy and Communicating It

So assuming a SharePoint project (or any other project for that matter) goes bad, how much blame should be lumped at management? You of course have to be careful here, blaming "management" might be a great way to let off steam, but sometimes it is easy to be misinformed. If you simply see "management" as a bunch of suits, up there in their ivory tower, getting paid way too much, chances are you are misinformed to some level. (Please note that at no point am I advocating *not* indulging in manager-bashing as it is as cathartic as bashing Microsoft)

But ask an ex-Enron employee whether management are to blame for all the world’s evils and I would argue that they are extremely well informed.

So, what have we learned from the Nintendo Wii strategy example? A well crafted and well executed strategy can have a dramatic effect on an organisation’s success – and therefore their bottom line. But it is clear that a good strategy can be derailed by poor execution. Let’s now look at the execution of strategy in more detail.

Muddling through Misinformation…

The fact is that we are all misinformed in our way, even the boss. We can’t know *everything*, and thus we need to rely on the combination of life skills and experiences of participants.

But an organisation with poor management likely results in much higher level of misinformed staff than a well managed organisation. So what is the difference between a well managed and poorly managed organisation? Whilst the differences are well beyond the scope of this post, it is fair to say that to stay consistently successful for a long period of time, the crafting and execution of strategy is a massive factor.

A critical part of executing strategy is making sure that all of your employees are on-board, owning and evangelising the strategy.

Is this easy? Hell no, but it has been done many times and there are actually plenty of good examples. Most products that are household names are beneficiaries of well executed strategy. But for a particularly interesting case, go and research into the turnaround of carpet company, Interface Inc if you feel like doing homework.

I have stressed a few times in this series, that wicked problems are often characterised by people having differing interpretations of the problem to solve. A well thought out, but poorly communicated strategy can have a devastating effect on this. The most wicked problem that I ever worked on, was at a company where I really had no idea of what the strategy was. Nor did the stakeholders, because not only were they not able to agree on requirements and scope, they were actively engaged in turf-wars and mini fiefdoms.

For what its worth, if you think I’m just a jaded ex-employee, then I should point out that the share price of this company has badly under performed against its competitors and the broader market over the last few years as well. If you subscribe to the view that long-term shareholder returns is the ultimate scorecard for directors and senior management, then that fact should offer insight into why several large projects were not a success there.

Between writing part 4 and part 5 of this series, I was reading a book on the strategies of successful global managers. It is called Global Strategies: Insights from the World’s Leading Thinkers (The Harvard Business Review Book Series). After reading it, I felt an irrepressible urge to write about it, as I knew it was related to the overall "theme" of this project failure series, but I couldn’t quite see where it would fit at that time. So I wrote an interlude, looking at where technology in general fits into global strategy.

If you check that interlude post, I made a case of Whirlpool’s performance through the 90’s. One of the most interesting things about Whilrpool’s example was that the CEO, David Whitwam went to great lengths to communicate the corporate strategy.

If you’re going to ask people to work together in pursuing global ends across organisational and geographic boundaries, you have to give them a vision of what they’re striving to achieve, as well as a unifying philosophy to guide their efforts.

That’s why we worked so hard at Whirlpool to define and communicate our vision.

The pivotal thing that Whitwam did however was teach financial metrics to all employees. Specifically, return-on-equity. (No I am not going to explain return on equity in this post – maybe a future "Learn to Speak to Your CFO" style series.). Below is a quote from Whitwam, specifically talking about this.

… Other programs … pay people – from top management to those on the factory floor – on the basis of return-on-equity (ROE) or return-on-net-asset (RONA) goals. Employees at Whirlpool all understand what ROE and RONA mean, what drives those measurements, and how they’re linked to shareholder value

I was impressed at this because the "learn to speak to your CFO" series was aimed squarely at nerds (and IT Managers for that matter), who seem incapable of looking at IT decisions based on a measurable financial metric. It’s all well and good to talk about TCO but you know there actually is that the middle letter that acronym is called COST! The thing about cost is if it can’t be quantified in some way, then how the hell are you supposed to know if you have improved things? It’s a slow drift back to the whole "choose the product before working out the problem to solve" issue talked about in part 3.

The brilliance of the Whirlpool strategy – teaching and communicating the metrics by which the organisation is judged and linking it to pay/performance incentives has many positive effects. One of which is now when a potentially wicked problem is being tackled, stakeholders are at the very least, arguing their interpretation of the truth based on a commonly defined metric!.

So rather than the people arguing a course of action because they think it’s the "right way", they are now forced to argue their action in terms of a tangible return on investment measure. This has a distinct and subtle effect on decision making also. Now people start to think about the organisation as owners!

Ah – an energised staff who have a strong sense of ownership in the organisation! Such a corporate culture can yield tremendous benefits beyond delivering a good project. Google is a great case in point.

Corporate Culture and Project Failure

Corporate culture is a direct result of the attitude and values of an organisation. Management have a huge influence on this and in fact it is incumbent on them to influence and direct corporate culture to as part of executing organisational strategy.

I would argue that a weak corporate culture has a big impact on organisational maturity, which in turn affects morale, which in turn directly affects project success. The bigger the project, the greater chance of failure.

Here’s a short 10 question test to assess your corporate culture

  • Are Herculean tasks are the norm? Do jobs get done via someone taking "above and beyond" to a stratospheric level?
  • Is the above "doing the impossible" attitude encouraged or expected?
  • Do staff complain that "no-one follows process" and play the people blame game?
  • Does the organisation seem to make the same mistakes over and over?
  • Are people timid when it comes to taking on responsibility due to the aforementioned blame game?
  • Is corporate information shared along "turf" lines? Is there an "us" and "them" mentality in relation to other departments or offices?
  • Are there customer or supplier complaints?
  • Do your BDM’s promise things that defy the laws of physics?
  • Are there lots of knee jerk reactions to issues or problems?
  • Is the organisation suffering from employee absenteeism and turnover?

If this sort of thing is rampant at your organisation, and it has been for some time, then I believe that it is really a failure on the part of senior management to cultivate a organisation culture conducive to project success. The more you relate to the above list, the more you are set-up to fail.

Conclusion – Manager Bashing 🙂

So I conclude part 7 by partaking in the very thing that I earlier suggested was being misinformed.

It is all senior management’s fault! Those up-themselves "suits", up there in their ivory tower, getting paid stupid amounts of money while us little guys get screwed over working 80 hour weeks for not enough money! Someone should do something! 🙂

On a serious note however, senior management and boards have to accept that they often need to do more to articulate and execute their strategy in a way that engages with staff, and instils a strong sense of ownership. Failure to do this sets up many projects for failure before they even begin.

(I told you this post would be idealistic!)

Thanks for reading


More recently, I listened to a fascinating interview with Arindam Bhattacharya, one of the co-authors of the book "Globality: Competing with everyone from everywhere for everything". (podcast here). This is a really interview about a book he authored that delves into the strategy behind leveraging the new ‘global’ world. Bhattacharya cites several examples where multinationals have been very successful with a clear strategy and other examples where local companies have been able to successfully hold their multinational competitors at bay.

Like the 1995 Harvard Global Strategies I mentioned earlier, this interview is worth listening to, purely from a global strategy point of view.



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4 Responses to Why do SharePoint Projects Fail? – Part 7

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