Making big plans work (even when many of them don't)

How to implement your "dreams" for making truly significant improvements in network operations

Probably the single biggest thing that stood out to me as I reviewed our IT consulting guidance on CMDB System deployments, service catalog deployments, and plans for end-to-end application and service management strategies, is how consistent the reasons for failure are.

In other words, most strategic IT initiatives have common grounds for failure, and by implication, common grounds for success. And the sad truth is that most of them don't succeed to live up to their initial high expectations. According to one of our consulting sources: "More than 75% of IT projects fail, either by providing too little functionality or overrunning cost and time estimates."

This is not surprising, and in fact not necessarily an argument against "strategic big plans" versus "tactical surgical" efforts. For one, most strategic goals not only include technology challenges, but also usually require improvements in IT processes and often even organizational habits and boundaries. These last are among the most intractable, but to abdicate to old habits is, well, abdication to a less effective way of working, because IT is going through a much-needed, slow-burning revolution towards a more service-aligned model.

If you're one of the growing number of enlightened advocates for strategic change, or caught up in the middle of an initiative, or managing a strategic initiative at a day-to-day level, or on a more executive level, then here are some ideas that might give you an indication if things are going well or badly - or if things aren't so rosy, how to right the ship:

o Develop sufficiently detailed requirements. Big plans may require a little dreaming, but they also require a lot of hard work and attention to detail. Vague mandates from on high -- sometimes communicated primarily through e-mail -- are almost guarantees for failure. Detailed plans should step back enough from the "dream" to parse out tangible, first-phase goals and a long-term structure for achieving success. Developing these plans usually requires attention to most of the recommendations below. And good plans should include good metrics that appropriately gauge the progress of the initiative. Whether or not these are ROI-specific or not may depend on the initiative and where you are in its deployment.

o Pay attention to process. It's great to see that IT is paying a lot more than lip service to how people work, and macro-economic conditions are only likely to reinforce the need for efficiency and collaboration. However, many strategic efforts get launched in a kind of Wild West manner, with a focus on process going in parallel or sadly ignored. Conversely, a "by-the-book ITIL initiative" can fail just as easily if it isn't coupled with flexibility and dialog. As stands repeating, ITIL is a departure point, not a bible.

o Make sure you have executive support. Once you've gotten some of your homework done, it's time to plan for a budget (see the next bullet) and get solid executive buy-in. This may sound obvious, but quite often "big plans" have their seeds at the mid-managerial level and never truly get the support of key executives. Some of the reasons -- well, here are two quotes from EMA clients:

"Major IT initiatives are risky and often put an executive's reputation on the line."

"The last big project like this failed because the CTO left during the project." Sadly, executive churn, is one of the leading reasons for big plans to go awry.

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