Why is the Failure Rate of IT and Change Management Projects So High?

 A few weeks ago, I had the chance to me with Scott R. Coplan in New York City and discuss the release of his new book, The Integrator: A Change Management Framework for Achieving Agile IT Project Success. This book defines change management as the single overarching methodology integrating Agile IT and project management. It does this because all projects are about change – significant organizational and personal change. The people involved – their participation in and understanding and support of these changes – ultimately determine IT projects success or failure. In fact, while all IT projects are about change, successful projects change human behavior.

During our conversation, I ask Scott, "Why is the failure rate of IT and change management projects so high?" Here is his complete answer:

There’s only one reason projects fail — leadership. You know who I’m talking about. Most of us have worked for that problematic project leader. 

Everything stems from a project’s leadership. They are the principal players or sponsors responsible for guiding each participant in completing the project successfully or failing miserably. 

A successful project requires a chain of sponsorship, including authorizing and reinforcing leaders. Authorizing sponsors have the power to approve, fund, and allocate resources to achieve a project supporting the organization’s clearly defined purpose. Reinforcing sponsors uphold, strengthen, and execute the project on behalf of the authorizing sponsor. 

The pervasiveness of project sponsorship problems stems from one fact. Just because an individual holds a leadership position doesn’t mean they know how to lead. They need guidance. 

In these instances, the problematic sponsor’s boss or a change agent must start by working with that struggling project leader. While having a meeting about their inadequacies is never easy, it is necessary. 

Most problematic leaders feel inhibited in a sponsorship evaluation meeting with their boss. As a change agent of 45+ years, I’ve conducted hundreds of meetings as the boss’s proxy.

This requires preparation before the meeting, including clarity about what the problematic sponsor must do, described in safe language. It’s typical for a sponsor to have little idea of what sponsorship means. I always start by taking time to listen and understand the problematic sponsor’s viewpoint, particularly about their role and what fulfills them in performing it. That sponsor’s input and my response may help them grasp the importance of their role and improve their performance. 

I’ve encountered sponsors that still don’t understand their role, requiring other options, like routinely assessing the sponsor’s performance and providing feedback. At times, I’ve recommended guidance from an effective peer in the problematic sponsor’s development process.

In severe cases, I’ve recommended replacing the sponsor. Their departure offers an opportunity for me to help the organization’s leadership find a suitable replacement. This is an individual who starts by engaging with their direct reports, establishing a shared purpose defined by enterprise-wide collaboration, followed by aligning their beliefs and abilities with that purpose. 

What do you think of Scott's perspective? Have your IT and change management projects been successful? Have there been leadership issues?