The satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked that if two people can’t communicate then the least they can do is to shut up. In a similar vein, a former manager, fondly remembered, once told me that the problem with the IT industry was that it hadn’t learned to listen to customers with its ears open and its mouth closed.

Most large organisations conduct annual surveys of their staff, which will find that there are ‘communication problems’ within the organisation. So despite the fact that we communicate from our first breath as human beings, communication is hard. Two well-known quotes illustrate the challenge:

‘I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.’

Or George Bernard Shaw’s: ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Behind many so-called IT project failures I’ve long thought that communication skills in the project management community and methodologies is an under-developed facet of the industry.

Let me illustrate from my own past.

I was asked to join a review of a rollout plan for a distributed system with a central head office system. It was going to around 100 sites across the UK. As luck would have it a similar project was coming to the end and the team could be moved en bloc to the new project. The team had successfully met quality, timescales and budgets on a tricky client.

I had the task of reporting back and we found little to fault in the plan and the team. It seemed pretty risk free. Anyway, three months later I got a phone call: ‘You know that project you said was risk-free... it’s gone pear-shaped. You’ve got two weeks to find out what happened and get a rescue underway.’

So, what was it? Complacency, technical problems, team problems? No!

What I discovered was that the equipment was failing at a rate about 10 times higher in this project than the last, including broken keyboards, power outages and suggestions of vandalism (unproven).

Yet the environment in which the distributed systems were operating looked near identical and no hardware problems were obvious from shipment.

It turned out that ‘organisational culture’ was most of the difference. In the former project, the staff saw investment in modern ICT as a sign of commitment by management and protecting their jobs. In the latter, staff were suspicious of management and saw ICT as undermining them and in the long-term threatening their jobs. ‘IT failure’ was an excuse not a reason.

I was reminded of this incident by a recent book, ‘Communicating Projects’ by Ann Pilkington (Gower, 2013).

We often say that there is no such thing as an ‘IT project’ but only a ‘business change project’, but do we mean it?

As I read it, I used the above example and a couple of others to see how her approach might have prevented or tackled challenges that I have seen. The book takes an end to end approach from planning, implementing and evaluating communications in a project context.

There’s nothing earth shattering about the approach, the tools and techniques - just plain common sense based on experience. What did surprise me, however, is that if I went back to the initial roll out review mentioned above, all of the issues later found could have been identified and the risks mitigated. It’s just that we didn’t ask the questions so we didn’t find the risks. I hesitate to work out what the savings and avoidance of reputational damage could have been.

Indeed the stakeholder approach mentioned in the book has given me further insights into my thoughts on the Universal Credit and NHS IT projects posted in earlier blogs.

Outside IT I looked at the HS2 train project and found this book helpful.

This has been the best year for books in the ICT discipline for a long while from my perspective and this, if not a Xmas present, would certainly be a good New Year’s present to a project manager for 2014.

This will be my last post for 2013. Thanks for the comments, mostly private, over the year on my musings. Have a Merry Xmas. I hope that 2014 is fun, healthy and successful. Ann’s book could help deliver a less stressful job and better delivery in 2014.


About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.