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IT projects fail to deliver big bang

The failed BBC Digital Media Initiative (DMI) project and failing Universal Credit project have much in common – both over-bloated, over-long, expensive and with no practical output to show for the effort.

The BBC project has ended in acrimony with the sacked IT boss appearing to explain his point of view – warts and all. And ex-director general Mark Thompson has flown in from his new job at the New York Times to defend his actions. In addition, MPs have a 30-page deposition from whistle-blower Bill Garrett – a former BBC IT boss, who, in 2012, told BBC Trust chair Lord Patten privately about problems with DMI.

The Universal Credit project marches on to an uncertain future. Take-on of new claimants will virtually stop in coming months as the creaking v2.0 software being used in the Pathfinder areas has only a limited lifespan. Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith’s hope is that a Universal Credit v3.0 designed to work on mobile technology will save the day. But now he has to explain how much money was wasted on v1.0, and what the point of v2.0 was.

The common factor between these two projects is hubris and over-confidence in large, big-bang IT systems projects. An agile approach of incremental development and implementation would have staved off the risks in these projects and avoided a terrible waste of public money.


Adapted from the blog: ‘Two incendiary parliamentary hearings this afternoon’, BrianWernham.wordpress.com. For further reading see:

Accusations fly in advance of hearing on £126m waste on BBC Digital Media Initiative Project

Parliamentary Work & Pensions Committee recalling IDS on Monday for grilling on Universal Credit v3.0

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  1. Amerjit Walia
    Amerjit Walia 20 February 2014, 03:39 PM

    Agree with both comments that it's not just that IT projects are generally 'failed' projects but it's the governance frameworks adopted and practiced. The Governance SIG guides are excellent publications that act not only as guides but also reminders as to the importance of getting the governance frameworks right for major project programmes. Both the Universal Credit and BBC projects are examples of where Governance has been overlooked and key stakeholders have weilded far too much power and influence over key aspects of scope and delivery; leading to project failure and compromises. Good project Managment is based upon good governance for any project.

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 07 February 2014, 09:15 PM

    This post continues the tradition of pretending IT projects are different, which is dangerous, and advocating a different IT methodology as a saviour which is focusing on the symptoms not the root cause of the problem.All types of project fail for 3 basic reasons:1. Bad management of the overall project (as distinct from bad project management the best PM in the world cannot overcome incompetent executive management)2. A risk (identified or not) that occurs and derails the project (frequently incorrectly referred to as a black swan)3. The projects deliverables are no longer required because the world has changed. Bad management includes over optimistic / unachievable estimates, poor scope definition, allowing bad project management practices and a host of other factors that generally indicate poor or non-existent governance.  The solution is not another methodology; it is improving governance and accountability.Some risks are manageable (revert to point 1) others are unavoidable if they occur (eg, the current floods in the SW) or genuine black swans, unforeseeable. Good management can minimise the damage but the project environment is risky and there is always a consequential risk of failure.When the world changes this is really just another risk. Good management closes the project or reframes it quickly, bad management pretends the world has not really changed and keeps wasting money.Agile is a useful product development strategy provided the project is properly planned, focused and managed (as is program management) if not they are simply another way of wasting the same amount of money in a number of smaller increments.The thing agile advocates frequently forget is the overall vision and architecture of a major development being undertaken incrementally are probably more important then in a holistic development, particularly when it comes to scope definition and control (ie, doing exactly the right amount of work not too much and not too little).  For more on Agile management see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P109_Thoughts_on_Agile.pdf Universal Credit used Agile and failed - and no amount of 'Agility' would have saved the West Coast Rail Franchise project.  

  3. James Dale
    James Dale 06 February 2014, 06:57 PM

    Thanks Brian.  These are important lessons and as Winston Churchill poignantly once said "It is better to learn from the misfortune of others than your own"It is indeed a depressing day for our Association and our vision of a world in which all projects succeed.  The response of the senior management and governors of the BBC to the NAO's scathing report about the mismanagement of the infamous three major estates projects:(NAO, 2010,  http://www.nao.org.uk/report/the-bbcs-management-of-three-major-estate-projects/)indicated that hard lessons had been learnt and that future projects and programmes would be managed very differently.  In the case of the Major Estate Projects the NAO reported failings (many significant) against all of the eleven OGC Gatweway Lessons.The BBC has some outstanding project managers.  We all get it wrong from time to time but how can one organisation fail again and so spectacularly, in such a relatively short timespan?Jim