Saturday, 14 December 2013

Plan A

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A few recent mop up type projects I am involved with have led me to ponder on the effects of poor planning at the start of many software application purchases and major business projects. There is a lot that the recent IDS Universal Credit and HS2 projects can teach us about how to get projects right. As the M&S lorries scream, There is no Plan B. But what if Plan A is somewhat wibble?

The Iain Duncan Smith visit to the Commons Select Committee this week is the latest in a long line of British Government IT projects that have become a horrendous money pit, often being abandoned, rather than delivering anything remotely useful. Watch this latest IDS UC car crash unfolding here in slow motion -  For MBA courses, surely this will become a great case study in how not to manage projects. 

So what can we learn in our own projects from this. Well quite a lot, IDS is doing us a service by highlighting how not to do it. Firstly, know what your objectives are, right from the start. The IDS aims for UC were ‘To generate £38b in savings over the next 12 years’. This has now been modified to ‘emphasis the economic benefits of the programme’. Digging down, that breaks down as ‘38% of these savings are to come from fewer overpayments and increases in employment, while the bigger savings – 68% - will come from the economic benefits to claimants’. Thus only £14.44b might be generated in overpayment savings.

So a goal-post in objective has changed here. Also no mention of where the new UC IT system may also tackle the issue of under-payments. Bringing all benefits under one roof means that claimants may well now be able to claim for things they are entitled to, that they were not currently aware of.

HS2 (high speed rail 2 connecting London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds faster, by 2032), is another project with rapidly changing aims, as casters are added to its goal posts and expected costs double to over £42b. It started off as being about ‘savings in business time, spent travelling on trains’, now mysteriously as many people work via the internet while on the move, the raison d’etre is now ‘Enhanced capacity’. As anyone in the know already suspects, if HS2 was about bringing prosperity to ‘The North’, it would be a high speed train line between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds & Hull, with a spur up to the East Coast main line, connecting Newcastle & Edinburgh.

This reveals two important areas of any successful project. Number one is know what the project is for. Changing aims reveals that there is probably no basis in benefits for the project in the first instance. Where benefits in ROI (Return On Investment), enhanced customer service, measurable social good etc are expected, document them clearly. These can be measured later. Also examine negative effects of the project and clearly document them. These might offset some benefits, much like the IDS under-claimers, or cities not connected on HS2 losing out. Burying these facts reveal issues that have not been honestly put in the mix.

Number two is do enough detail analysis before committing resources. What my old Bsc Applied Computing lecturer Ian Beeson used to call ‘not being prematurely physical’. For example, if IDS had spent £3m up-front on decent analysis of benefit process, UK Govt PLC would not now be writing off £40m of wasted IT project. Take the project in stages, ensuring each is closed / completed adequately before moving on. Basic PRINCE2 in practice that one.

Number three is set your budget, based on the above, and what you know thus far. Set your contingency too, maybe 15-20%. Where a supplier will give you a capped price on your service/training/implementation days AND your requirements are well researched and firm, then you have something very attractive. Also find out what the additional day rate is. Very important for those valid ‘Out of scope’ elements. Not good to find they may cost you £1,000+ per day. Better to have fixed a more acceptable rate, much earlier on.

Number Four is to run the project in a transparent manner. IDS in his UC project has been dogged by ‘Bad News’ getting in the way of ‘Good News’. Don't suppress bad news, when it comes up, deal with it and correct the little blips that all projects encounter.  Smoothing over blips with good PR and what start as white lies, will dig a hole that will become exponentially difficult to dig yourself out of. As IDS has found out to his cost, £40m has already been written off, in a project at least 2 years late, with over 700,000 benefit claimants still expected to be outside the new IT system. 

We are all aware of projects initiated, where the project director has left way before any deliverables are seen. One particular ‘industry strength’ financials package, that need not be named, generally follows that route. The finance director ordering it will have a new job shortly afterwards (as it looks so good on a CV), be in it two years or more, before the original organisation is anywhere near having it in and working. It has not missed anyone’s attention that one such implementation is ongoing at the moment at a large prominent midlands based housing group. It will be interesting how that goes, all of the bigger HMS suppliers I speak to are aware of it, watching it extremely carefully. If it is delivered on time, to budget and can perform to what UK housing needs. If not, it may well mirror the expensive slow motion car crash unfolding for UC.

Unless he has a ‘road to Domestos’ type conversion, IDS will continue to hype the UC good news, in order to dispel that label he acquired from George Osbourne, just a few months ago.
While IDS is only wasting all our taxpayer cash, poor execution of housing system projects impact directly on our residents and communities. Think how many new kitchens or improved efficient heating systems, to lift residents out of fuel poverty, could have been put in with your systems project overrun....

You can link with me on LinkedIn here - It would be great to connect !

Read on, to a great book on Microsoft Dynamics Great Plains

Dandy Warhols - Plan A .

(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting 07854-655009

PS As usual, if there are subjects you might like me to tackle on this blog, please get in touch and let me know!

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