Well-Intentioned Failures: The Communication Problem Behind IT


Information technology failures are a systemic problem that nobody likes to talk about.

Failed initiatives to fix them continue to impact countless industries.

As a result, billions of dollars are lit on fire every year in an attempt to stave off disaster.

Michael Krigsman, Publisher and Industry Analyst for CXOTalk, believes IT failures are not a technology problem but a communication problem.

IT problems are only a symptom - we have to help cure the people behind the technology.

Join us as we discuss:

- Commonalities in IT failures and how to improve upon them (2:45)

- How successful companies reinvent themselves and sustain growth (7:20)

- The recipe for organizational self-awareness and vision (19:39)

Craving more? You can find this interview and many more by subscribing to C-Suite Blueprint on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or here.

Why just so many large technology initiatives fail? Why is it such an interesting topic to think about and write about, and what did truly transformative leaders Sharon common? Today I'm joined by an industry analyst and publisher of C x. So Talk Michael Crigsman. Michael has been working for over three decades advising enterprises on technology, as well as being a prolific publisher and author. Please welcome Michael. You're listening to C suite blueprint, the show for C suite leaders. Here we discussed nobs, approaches to organizational readiness and digital transformation. Let's start the show, Michael, thanks so much for joining me. George, I'm just delighted to be here to talk with you. You know, I was really energized from our last conversation and one thing that I found amazing about you is that you used to be one of the most prolific writers on I t failures, and I wanted to discuss that and I wanted to start with why. What drew you to ID failure is what motivated you to write about them. Yeah, I know it's one of those things where it's it is pretty strange, and I guess the answer the funny answer is, well, so, I guess somebody has to do it. But, but, but, the serious answer is that I had been developing software. We developed software that almost puts sensors inside large I t projects and measured what are the perceptions of the various stakeholders, the the end user, you know, the the I t department, the third party consulting companies, the software vendor, in order to then compare this data, this perceptual data, and I thought, you know, I need to write about this and I should start blogging to build myself up a name. And one thing leads to another and I found out that there are not many people who want to take on this difficult challenge. And this is like ten, fifteen years ago, this is going back a while now. And there weren't many people who wanted to take on that challenge. And I learned, as I learned more and more about it, I realized this is extremely rich, it's extremely important and somebody needs to talk truth to power about this subject. And so, you know, it's like anything else. You start, you continue and then you kind of get into it and get into it more. Yeah, just a burden that you had to carry. It's scary when you see how much money is thrown at these failed I t initiatives and also all the lives that are impacted. I mean how many people are going into these initiatives day after day, stressed, miserable, teams that are in fighting. You know, I'm curious what, what commonalities did you see across these failures, things that we can we can learn from big picture to improve in the future. Well, I think the most important thing, first off, you just mentioned, is that when there is an I t project that goes bad or or an I t project it goes good, goes well, it has an impact on real people and, for example, I studied several projects where there were payroll failures and in once one organization they brought they had to bring an armed guards on payroll day because there was just such pandemonium because people weren't getting their their checks. These are real and the impact on people, on employees and customers, is genuine. The common thread I find quite fascinating, which is in general it's not the technology that goes bad. Sometimes it is there's a bug or there's a flaw in the software, but more likely there's there are issues around communication, the the expectations of the end users are not being matched by what I t is delivering. This is a perennial problem. It's it's goes back probably, I suppose,...

...since the beginning of computing and it's still an issue today. Today, I think C I o s are more sophisticated about it and we're careful to engage stakeholders and I think you have fewer of these very large projects where, you know, I t does the work then throws it over the fence to the user and you know, traditional Waterfall Matt manner. But it's it's not the technology, it's the people issues. Every single time we have to remember that humans are at the center of this Um. Poking into something you just said is that, you know, maybe it's a little bit better now and for sure, you know the waterfall initiatives being not as prevalent Um, we're kind of more all in this mess together when we're working on these initiatives, but the same communication problems still seem to be there. So often we just don't learn from the past. Do you think that we're learning more from the past? Do you think that we're getting better? The real issue is communication young people is hard. We have we have incomplete information, even when we have the best of intentions, when everybody has the best of intentions, which I know with intevity and your case, that's that's of course true and one hopes it's, you know, universally true across the board. I'm not sure that it is, but but those would be the outliers. More more typically, there are different groups of people that have different goals, different agendas, different sets of compensation metrics and outcomes that they're trying to achieve. It's hard to hire people, which means sometimes you can get folks who are not as experienced who just may make mistakes or, you know, Oh, if we don't do this step, everything's fine. You know it's it's gonna everything is going to be good, and then everything is fine up until the point you go live and you realize, oh, it's not so the as to your question is, have we learned? I think, for for people of good intentions, we're always trying to learn, but we're still human and things happen, baggage gets built up. It always feels like people want to reinvent the wheel too, you know, and they're looking for a quick fix rather than this the core human communication relationships. I mean this is goes back to the dawn of time. You know, it has nothing to do with computing right. This is just how do you manage a relationship? And relationships are are hard. Oh you know that. You know the old project management saying. There's never enough money to do it right the first time, but there's always the time in the budget to fix it. I'm always inspired by our clients. One of our clients is Sasrak Um. They're large bevel company, but they're older than our government. You know, they've they've been one of the longest running companies in the country and what I find interesting about them is they get that right. The that that they operate on g is like a like a forty year road map or something crazy. It's it's it's baffling to think about, but you know, when they're willing to put in the time to to do something right, that's when you get delicious Bourbon or that's when you get great software. But if you try to rush it, no matter what secrets you try to use it, it always doesn't come out tasting as as delicious it seems. You know, I've interviewed on C X O talk a number of companies that are more than a hundred years old. For example, this coming Friday I'm interviewing the CEO of McGraw Hill, the book, you know, publishing an education. They have been around for more than a hundred years and what always strikes me is the fact that these companies are always reinventing themselves over time, and that means having a longer time horizon that goes beyond just the current quarter, because otherwise they wouldn't exist, you know, they would have gone out of business as technology changes, as culture changes and so forth. And I've interviewed many of these company me so there there's quite a...

...lot of them out there and it does require a deep understanding both of our present customer today, of our business and where we as a business may be disrupted so that we can make the changes proactively ourselves. What a great point in there is the thinking beyond the quarter, and it's funny that these these longer running companies they probably just naturally fall into that because the scale that they've been operating on for so long. But I tell you, there's so many companies that we've worked with and their challenge is, and they know it too, which is that the tough part is their budgets fall on a fiscal year, so they're all their initiatives, it's all within the span of one year. But they have, they know that they have initiatives that should be thought of larger. It should be thought of not as a project but a product internally or, you know, just some larger initiative. But they just can't seem to break out of that that annual fiscal year budgeting and in that really that really hurts them. Um It's interesting that the longer running company is kind of have a leg up on that a little bit. When we talk about transformation, when we talk about digital transformation, is very easy and tempting to think about technology fixes. Oh, where will will put our website online? Will be e commerce, and that's our digital transformation, when the reality is that we need to also be thinking about our operations. For example, you just mentioned this uh budgeting and expenditure and Revenue Cycle. Well, how do we compensate our sales people? Do we compensate our sales people in a way that aligns their actions, activities and compensation to what we are trying to achieve through our transformation? So you can't just look at one piece. There is no magic bullet when it comes to change. You have to look at all of the pieces, the technology and the impact of the technology on our processes and our operations. Yeah, last time we talked we got into some of these moments. These are the moments I like, or the aspects of these transformations I like to call the you know, eat your Brussels sprouts moments, although Brussels sprouts are are delicious these days and now that people stop boiling them. But Um, the you know, when people think about transformation, they do gravitate towards the more sexy things and and sometimes it is just the blocking and tackling. Hey, we really need to look at the way that we're compensating people. We need to look at Um our process inventory. Should we do a controlled burn of our processes and just get rid of a whole bunch? You know, we we've been. We're just talking about these long running companies. While some of them are great, I have run into some that are, we will go, nameless, but are also older than than the country and Um, they had built up so much bureaucracy and process over there. You know, two hundred years or so two hundred plus years of business that it was. You just couldn't get anything done. It was brutal. They had never done a controlled, you know, burn of their processes and I'm curious, you know, what your observations have been in how can company, how can they successfully do that reconstant reinmenting of themselves? How can they do the controlled Burns of what they've they've built up to that point to kind of start over again? So I'm going to date myself for a moment here. If we think back to the days, the Heydays of e RP, with sap, for example, those companies who merely, I'll put merely in quotes, who merely implemented in the RP system and replicated their existing processes, we're kind of wasting their money to a certain extent, because they were just simply driving for efficiency without using taking advantage of the real opportunity of us of a software system, which is to help you change what you're doing, to...

...improve what you're doing. And those companies who, as you described, are very old, have been around for a long time and who have built up this this expansive bureaucracy and this complicated set of processes. You know, how long can that be sustained, especially in this environment today, where you have technology that's changing so rapidly and you also have h employee and customer expectations that are changing very quickly. So so how do you change? I think number one is you have to somebody, senior, senior management, seiter, leadership needs to believe that there's a reason to change. If they don't see it, right, it's like, well, listen, you know, George, our company is Great, we've been great for two hundred years and now you're telling us we need to change. Well, I'm pretty happy as we are. So why should I change? Change? If you have that attitude, well, nothing's going to change. And that's also a very, very human aspect, right the you know, you spend a lot of money and a personal trainer in a gym, but heck, I still want to keep eating ice cream and drinking lots of beer. Right. You need to have that discipline to do it. And and I think not only the reason for change defining it and saying it out loud, but just repeating it through the hallways day after day, because when things are tougher, when you're getting lost in the sea of of you know, process and and systems. You need to be reminded of why it is, why the heck it is that you're doing this in the first place, because I think it's it's easy to forget. I think that becomes the interesting conversation, the first conversation where you know, everything is great, we don't have to change. You know, wonderful, that's great, I'm happy for you. You know. So then you shouldn't you shouldn't change. That's not such an interesting conversation. Unless these unless the company is like so amazing that we need to hold them up as kind of a shining example for for the rest of us. That's and that's pretty unusual. So I think what's more interesting are the and more realistic or the companies who are saying, you know, we need to innovate, we need to adapt. How do we do that? We have an existing set of products and services that we supply to the market. We have an existing set of processes and people trained on those processes. So what are the steps? And then we can and once you have that conversation, then you can start digging into the strategy of transformation as well as the tactical aspects of what can we do to migrate and get this organization to to move and to adapt and not have screw ups where we can't issue paychecks or we can't ship products or whatever it is, but to do it in order to to disrupt, but in an orderly manner. Disrupt but nordly manor. I like that. And on your show, c x o talk, you've talked to a tremendous amount of change agents and leaders that have they have been successful in transformation and I'm curious, from your seat talking to these people, what, what do they have in common? What traits do they have that that enables them to be so successful? I think about it quite a bit. I think the common threads are, number one, a sense of humility and realism, which flies in a way, flies in the kind of conventional image of these senior business lead leaders. When I say, you know, being humble, but they really are. They understand the best ones. And don't forget I should mention the people who come to me that I interview on c x o talk. These are the most innovative ones, the ones who are saying, you know, we don't need to change. They don't come to me and when they do come to me, it's like, you know, there's it's not for c...

...x o talk right. So I'm so I'm talking to the really innovative ones, the ones who are digging into those eat your Broccoli uh discussions that you've that you've described. So so I think number one having that humility to recognize that we must change. It's not a choice. We may not want to change, we may prefer the things could stay the same, but the world is changing around us. Our customers expect certain things from us that we cannot deliver, or we or we need to be better at delivering and more responsive in one way or another. Our processes may be bloated and outdated. All of these things, whatever it might be. We need to innovate faster, we need to be more agile, we need to you know our you know we're we've been around for a long time, but now we have these upstart competitors that don't have our baggage. They also don't have our revenue and customer base, but they can change quickly and we can't. So it's things. So so it begins with things like that, that humility, and and then there is but that's that's an easy place to like, that's an easy thing to talk about, you know. Well, you should be humble. where it gets more difficult is how, and you your questions sort of alluded to this. Well, how do we actually put this into practice? Because I'm responsible for driving this kind of change, say, say e commerce, for example, and the people who I work with who are getting revenue, you know, their own compensation based on doing things the way that we do them now. They don't want this. Yeah, that's a tough one, and for good reason. Right, they don't want it for good reason, for because that's how they're compensated. They're compensated on a revenue stream or what have you. Right. What do we do then? Now it starts really becoming an interesting conversation. Yeah, because now you're attacking castles that people have built, right and and they don't want to give them up. You know, I find it interesting that the first thing that you jumped to is a common thread. Um, and yeah, I agree, it is easy to talk about being humble these days. You know, I think. I think, I'm glad that more and more people are very aware that it's not this command and conquer world. But what I really heard in there was this, this or the high level of organizational self awareness. It's funny that that came through more so than these people are great visionaries. Like how do you find the balance between Hey, I'm I'm the vision person. I'm going to really paint this picture of vision versus Hey, let's have some you know, really high levels of organizational self awareness. Let me understand what's driving the team and motivating the team. Where are deal in there? It's a really good point. So the vision, you have to assume the vision. If, if, if you don't have a vision for the future and where you want this ship to go, then you're basically screwed. It's it's not gonna work. So so there's no real reason to talk too much about the vision unless we want to have a conversation about vision, about vision itself, because you have to assume it. But if you're talking about from an operations standpoint, meaning getting it done, these people definitely have a uniformly a high degree of organizational self awareness. To use your term, and the term that I hear a lot as well, is having empathy, empathy for customers and empathy for employees, empathy for all the stakeholders, as well as a very keen sense of what the obligations are to the various stakeholders. So for so, for example, you may have empathy for the customer and customers and to change, an empathy...

...for the employees who don't want to change. But if we're a public company, then we also have to have empathy. I'm not sure that's quite the right word, but we have to have an understanding of our obligations to the stock market, and I don't paint that as a bad thing, but I paint that as a realistic constraint that has to get factored into the mix and you have to get the thing done despite all of these constraints. That's a lot of plate spinning and trying to make it because because it really is at the intersection of all of those. It's it's the shareholders, it's the consumers and it's the employees. And how do you find the intersection of that that works for all of those too, to meet the Vision that you want? And I'm glad you said empathy, because those those employees you were talking about before that they don't want to change. They've built their castle. You know you're you're going to be messing with the way they were compensated. I think if you truly do have empathy for them, you want to you want to make it very clear what their new home is going to look like right in the organization. What's that Gond and with utmost clarity, what exactly is that? Is that going to look like? And and to me that's the type of vision I think that is important. I think a lot of people, when they think vision, they can they can think, you know, this big, the big idea stuff. Right, this is you know, we're gonna do a moon shot and here's what that looks like. But it's also to me what I where I find organizations are successful is if they can paint the vision of what does it look like on on day one and what does it look like for the year or two after day one of this new transformation, as as we're going through it, and where are all your homes in it? Um, I don't know if you've had similar observations. Without a doubt, you know you do have there. You do run across people now and then who who genuinely have that kind of expansive future vision. Look at Elon Musk uh talk about moonshots. I mean he literally had a vision to, you know, go into space and everything else. But first off, there aren't that many of us who have that kind of level of vision and also have a realistic chance of executing it. M Hm. And even Elon Musk, you know, he says he doesn't have time for family and so forth because he's working too much, because he's deep in the details. So I think this question of vision, while on the one hand it's it's essentially crucially important. I think you kind of nailed it that where it really matters as far as transformation goes, is making it clear to the various stakeholders, to your employees for example, where, as you said, their new home is going to be. And this is, and let me just say that it's just another adjunct to the question you asked earlier about what are the common threads. These people communicate a lot. They communicate clearly, they communicate consistently, they put the message out there and they work with people so that you to try to avoid surprises. But it's communication is another essential aspect of of the stool. I love that. I think it was Allen Molally. That said, being unclear as being unkind and that's where it really started to resonate with me that you know how important that is, because if you are going to be empathetic and and our whole mantras being human first and and if you really want to do that, then you really need to be clear and communicate. And and I'll be open right here, I've had my own challenges internally my own company where people have told me that we're not communicating enough. We did an episode on internal communications with the head. You know someone who ran internal communications that foundation medicine, Alison Drake Vit. She was great. We we actually had an internal communication failure while one of my employees was listening to...

...that podcast where we were talking about and so they dingd me on it. They're like, Hey, you're talking about this on your podcast and we're not even always being that great at communicating internally, and it is tough. I think what happens as an executive is you have a lot of thoughts in your head and you can't always put a line on how many of those thoughts happen in your head versus how many you've said out loud and how many times you've said them out loud to the team to make sure that they truly understand it. Well. You know, the thing is, with the takeaway that I got from from that story, the most important thing actually it's not the fact that that more communication was needed, because actually more communication most of the time is almost always needed. You know whether that's the nature of it. You just can't repeat it. The message with clarity more than possible. I mean you just have to keep doing it. But the lesson that I took away from that is the folks inside your company felt comfortable enough coming to you and telling you that, and you obviously took it in the right spirit, as opposed to being defensive and saying well, no, I told you to do this, so you need to do this, this, this and this, and don't bother me, which happens a lot with business leadership business management, and so that, to me, is the most important takeaway right there, is that the culture of the company is obviously one that is open. Perfection is not attainable, doesn't happen, but having the right type of culture of communication and openness where people can speak their mind, that's a real achievement and that's really, really important. Back to the humility and and I do love a reminder that that. You know, nothing's perfect and and when we look at these large scale software initiatives or transformation efforts, Um, they definitely won't be perfect. Right. I think it's all about smoothing out the amplitude of the mistakes, you know, you know, making sure that things don't linger too long, you know, accepting that it won't be perfect, but then changing and, Um, adapting as you go. Michael, I really enjoyed this conversation. I always like to to finish with the fun item, which is especially with all of your your many years of expertise and that the many interviews that you've done. What's the best advice that you've received, the best advice I have received? Just keep going, m just be persistent. The the advice. You know, it's funny you you read this advice. People say, well, follow your passion. I'm not sure that that's great advice. In general. I think that you need to find a place that you're comfortable, that you enjoy doing, and then have the persistence and the discipline to pursue it even when you just don't feel like it and you don't want to. I guess if we followed we just followed our passions. I'd be out playing off, but not at a professional level, so I don't think it would be bringing me much, much revenue if I was out there. I love that. I love that. Yeah, you just keep putting, especially when in when we talk about transformation efforts. You know, you really you gotta keep going because there really is no end. Yeah, and you know, and also just to be nice and to be kind. I think is really good advice. Could not agree more. And you are an extremely nice and very kind person, Michael, and I appreciated the time here. Thank you so much. Thank you, George. It's just an honor to talk with you. You've been listening to see skeee blueprint. If you like what you've heard, be sure to hit subscribe wherever you get your podcast to make sure you never miss a new episode. And while you're there, we'd love it if you could leave a rating. Just give us however many starts you think we deserve. Until next time.

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