The four destructive enthusiasms of IT
Several surveys have indicated that IT projects – especially large ones – fail at an alarming rate. In a paper entitled, Pessimism, Computer Failure, and Information Systems Development in the Public Sector, Shaun Goldfinch mentions that 20-30% of projects costing more than $ 10 million are abandoned altogether. Further, over half are over time and/or budget, and do not deliver to expectations. Although Goldfinch’s paper focuses on IT investments in the public sector, the situation in the private sector isn’t much better.
Goldfinch makes the observation that,
Enthusiasm for large and complex investments in IS continues unabated despite decades of failure. Indeed, the largest-ever public sector project was initiated in 2002 by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service at an estimated cost of US$11 billion…
He proposes a model of four pathological enthusiasms which cause key stakeholders to talk-up benefits and downplay difficulties when advocating such projects. In this post, I take a brief look at the model and its utility evaluating project proposals.
The four enthusiasms model
Many projects begin as ideas which originate from a small number of enthusiastic advocates. Often a single enthusiast with sufficient influence can push an ill-conceived project through the approval stages to the point where it is given the go-ahead. According to Goldfinch, such misplaced enthusiasm generally falls into one of the following categories:
- Idolisation (Technological Infatuation): This is a situation where a key business stakeholder believes that business problems can always be solved by technology. Projects driven by such people place technology at the heart of the solution. Such efforts often fail because not enough attention is paid to other factors (people, processes etc.).
- Technophilia: This refers to the IT profession’s belief that all problems have technical solutions. As Goldfinch puts it, “it is the myth of the technological fix, in which “the entire IS profession perpetuates the myth that better technology, and more of it, are the remedies for practical problems.” Efforts driven by technophilia fail because those who are involved get too caught up in learning and mastering the technology rather than solving the problem.
- Lomanism: This term, derived from the protagonist in the play Death of a Salesman, refers to the (real or feigned) over-enthusiasm that IT sales and marketing professionals have for their companies’ products. Unfortunately such folks often have the ear of IT decision-makers who are susceptible to sales pitches that promise untold (but unrealistic) benefits. On the other hand it should also be mentioned that Lomanism is often a response to unrealistic customer expectations coupled with the pressure to meet sales targets. The only clear beneficiaries from Lomanism-driven efforts are technology vendors.
- Managerial faddism: This refers to the tendency of managers and senior executives to fall under the spell of the latest management fads. Many of these fads recommend a wholesale overhaul of organizational structures and processes, and are often accompanied by technical tools. IT service management methodologies are good examples of such fads.
Goldfinch states that:
Together, these four enthusiasms feed on and mutually reinforce one another in a vicious cycle, creating a strongly held belief that newer and larger IS projects are a good idea. Doubters and skeptics may be portrayed as “negative,” “not team players,” “not helpful”… Together, these pathologies make up the four enthusiasms of IT failure. When a project does encounter difficulties, these four enthusiasms can undermine attempts to curtail or abandon the project — a project can always be fixed with better management, a redesigned monitoring system or contract, more technology or hardware, better programming, or just a reassuring “it’ll be right on the night.”
Goldfinch suggests that large IT projects are often driven by one of four types of enthusiasm. These can lead to projects being driven by nothing more than wishful thinking and undue optimism. To counter this, he recommends that decision-makers take a pessimistic view when evaluating proposals for IT projects. Among other things this means questioning assumptions, particularly those relating to the technology that will be employed. Independent opinions are a good way to do this, but truly unbiased ones can be hard to come by (vested interests aren’t always obvious). In the end the solution may be as simple as relying on one’s own common sense and judgement. That’s where the model can help: viewing a business case or project proposal through the lens of the model can show up over-optimistic claims and projections.