Those of us that have spent significant time in the world of complex digital programs and IT projects know this. And if we are truly honest we will also confess that we remember the time when we too were once enticed by the shiny, new future promised by the software vendor. Beautifully articulated in their brochure/pitch deck/website that spins a story of a bright future once it’s implemented. Which of course will be straightforward along the Happy Path where only minor deviations can be expected.

All things are possible along this alluring Happy Path – often it even has horizons, just like in the story tales.

The problem with this is the Happy Path doesn’t exist.

I’ve lost count of the number of times in my long journey of project sponsorship that I have been presented with choices, none of which I like. Repeatedly told by the project director “there is no Happy Path”, I dive with the team deep into the options, pushing for creative ways of moving forward. Sometimes these efforts lead to new paths that hadn’t been contemplated. Rarely (read never), do they take the project back to that elusive Happy Path where all things are possible.

I have mentioned in a previous newsletter that big IT programs are fraught with challenges with failure more likely than success. BCG (Boston Consulting Group) has researched this multiple times. Its 2015 research: Large-Scale IT Projects: From Nightmare to Value Creation showed that while failure rates were reducing over time, they remained high, particularly for IT programs over $10M with a failure rate of > 90%. This is not a typo. 90%!

BCG’s more recent research specifically on digital transformation, Flipping the Odds of Digital Transformation Success, showed some improvement but still failure remains more likely than success, with only 30% of programs achieving their objectives.

So why do we still believe in it?

Why do we continue to believe in the Happy Path in the absence of all evidence to the contrary?

In my view we believe it for three reasons. 1. Because the vision is compelling and we really, really want to. 2. Not enough leaders and directors are educated in the high failure rate of programs so they are unaware that they are being sold a fairy tale, and 3. Decision makers have insufficient experience in managing tradeoffs and making choices.

The Happy Path has extraordinary allure and executive teams, sponsors, delivery teams and Boards continue to believe that this time it will be different. It rarely is.

Yet I have seen complicated programs deliver in the most trying of circumstances. In these situations, what did exist is creative delivery teams and decision makers with a clear understanding of what was most important. And the knowledge that when things got tough, they could not back away from making choices that reflected this understanding. They were very clear what was negotiable and what wasn’t and were skilled at making trade offs. Precious time and resources were not wasted searching for a Happy Path that didn’t exist.

The challenge is that staying still is not an option and stepping into a digital future often requires major investments to deliver the underlying technology infrastructure. Sadly the Happy Path with a well placed seat where you can admire your current view also doesn’t exist. Sorry.

So if you can’t stand still, and you’re likely to fail if you move forward with a major program what can you do?

Here are 6 things directors and leaders can do to improve the likelihood of success.

  1. Don’t believe in the existence of the Happy Path. I’m sorry if this is like the day you realised Santa wasn’t real. Unlike Santa, it is sad that projects that struggle don’t give you presents before you realise that the Happy Path was only a dream, but I don’t make the rules.
  2. Educate yourself on common problems with large programs. The two links above are good places to start.
  3. In the context of the real world where programs are more likely to fail than not, ask what makes this project/program different.
  4. Be clear what is most important, and understand that you will almost certainly be asked to give up many other things in support of what is your top priority.
  5. Seek detailed risk assessments of the program.
  6. Actively de-risk the project. Use the information you have learned through educating yourself to understand the common areas of failure, and seek plans that address areas where risk is heightened.

What do you think? Do you have a Happy Path turned Rocky Road (not the chocolate) story to share? I would love to hear about it.