All too frequently, executives are caught by surprise when projects — especially complex IT projects — run into trouble. But complex projects do not fail overnight; they fail one day at a time, and generally only after numerous warning signs. The authors have been involved in 14 academic studies about the ways in which individuals report (and misreport) the status of IT projects and how the recipients of those reports respond to the information they receive. The authors’ research suggests that understanding the underlying dynamics of project status reporting can help limit the chances of nasty surprises. In particular, they identify five “inconvenient truths” about project status reporting:
1. Executives can’t rely on project staff and other employees to accurately report project status information and to speak up when they see problems. Many employees have a tendency to put a positive spin on anything they report to senior management. When the organizational climate is not receptive to bad news, truthful reporting can be inhibited
2. A variety of reasons can cause people to misreport about project status. Executives tend to attribute misreporting to poor ethical behavior on the employee’s part. In fact, employees misreport for a variety of reasons; individual traits, work climate and cultural norms all can play a role.
3. An aggressive audit team can’t counter the effects of project status misreporting and withholding of information by project staff. Executives may conclude that the best way to address the problem of misreporting is to rely on auditors to make sure that project status reports are accurate. However, once auditors are added to the mix, negative organizational dynamics can lead to a dysfunctional cycle that results in even less openness.
4. Putting a senior executive in charge of a project may increase misreporting. Although having a senior executive as a project sponsor often proves wise politically and can help in securing resources for a project, the involvement of senior leaders does not make it any easier to track project status.
5. Executives often ignore bad news if they do receive it. A number of the authors’ studies found situations where employees went to share their concerns about a project with powerful decision makers who had the ability to change the course of the project (or stop it), but were unsuccessful.
The authors propose solutions to reduce the risk of being blindsided by any of these inconvenient truths. They include a self-diagnostic survey to help you assess whether you may be at risk for an unpleasant project management surprise.