The Dirty Half-Dozen

The Dirty Half-Dozen

6. Poor or Dishonest Communication

What can go wrong: Business communication alone could and in fact has launched enough books to fill an aisle at Dymock's. However, the problem is worse when IT is involved, simply because it's so hard for a layman to truly grasp the lingo. "There tends to be an overlap of buzzwords, so business and IT execs aren't speaking the same language - even though they think they are," says Margo Visitacion, a senior industry analyst with Giga Information Group.

Beyond tech-speak, many organisations suffer from the Mum or Deaf Effects: line workers don't want to be the bearers of bad news, and senior managers contrive not to hear that news if it is ever delivered. As a result, nobody sounds the alarm on IT projects that have "disaster" written all over them until it's too late. Georgia State University's Kiel believes many of the worst IT snafus of the past decade were caused by the Mum Effect.

What you can do about it: Experts offer some concrete ways to tackle the vexing communication problem. Hoenig suggests appointing two project managers - one whose forte is IT and one who is a business specialist - and making it the job of the latter to help the board understand what's going on.

And while it's easy to talk about having a culture that values open and honest communication, actually establishing one is tricky. One tool: "watchdog bonuses" for project workers who bring serious problems to your attention.

Don't hesitate to use your informal sources to learn how a project is really going. "An IT executive has got to know who the most important three to five people are [on a given project] and be in constant touch with them," Hoenig says. "Those people should be actively managing the key problems. Be suspicious if they say everything's fine."

In the end, perhaps the best advice comes from DeMarco: projects fail, he says, "not because the tasks are intellectually huge, but because they're engendered by an effort to transform the company". IT is used as the mechanism for that change, he adds, and makes a convenient scapegoat if things turn ugly. "When a project fails, it may look like IT failed - but it's almost always because organisational change failed," DeMarco says

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