Your data project is going to fail

Your data project is going to failI hate to be the bearer of bad news….but your data project is going to fail.

Maybe not the one you’re working on today. Maybe not the one you’re starting next month. Heck, maybe not the one you don’t even know about yet…but at some point in the future – if you stay in the data world long enough – your data project is going to fail.

There are may ways your data project could fail. Martin Goodson shares his thoughts on Ten Ways your project could fail, and I’ve seen failure’s driven by each of Martin’s “ten ways” during my career. The most spectacular failures have come from the lack of clear strategy for any data projects.

It should be common sense in the business world that if you don’t have a strategy and plan to execute that strategy in place, you are going to have a hard time. When I use the word ‘strategy’, I don’t just mean some over-arching plan that somebody has written up because they think ‘data is the new oil‘ and by ‘doing’ data projects they’ll somehow magically make the business bigger / better / richer / strong /etc.

Data projects are just like any other project. Imagine you need to move your data center…you wouldn’t just start unplugging servers and loading them into your car to drive to the new data center, would you?

Would you go and spend $20 million to hire a brand new sales team without building a thorough strategic plan for how that sales team will do what they need to do?  You wouldn’t hire the people, on-board them and then say ‘start making phone calls’ without planning sales territories, building ‘go to market’ plans and building other tactical plans to outline how the team will execute on your strategy would you?  Scratch that…I know some companies that have done that (and they failed miserably).

Data projects require just as much strategic thinking and planning as any other type of project. Just because your CEO (or CIO or CMO or …) read an article about machine learning doesn’t mean you should run out and start spending money on machine learning. Most of you are probably nodding along with me. I can hear you thinking “this is common sense….tell me something I don’t know.”  But let me tell you…in my experience, it isn’t common sense because I see it happen all the time with my clients.

So we agree that if you don’t have a strategy, your data project is going to fail, right? Does that mean if you do the strategic planning process correctly, you’ll be swimming in the deep end of data success in the future? Maybe. Maybe not. The strategic plan isn’t everything. If you were successful because you planned well, then every company that ever hired McKinsey would be #1 in their industry with no hope of ever being surpassed by their competitors.

After you’ve spent some time on the strategy of your data project(s), you’ve got to spend time on the execution phase of your project.  This is where having the right people, the right systems / technologies in place to ‘do’ the data work comes into play.  Again, every one of you is probably nodding right now and thinking something like “sure you need those things!”  But this is another area that companies fall down time and time again. They kick off data projects without having the right people analyzing the data and the right people / systems supporting the projects.

Take a look at Martin’s “Ten Ways” again, specifically #3.  I watched a project get derailed because the VP of IT wouldn’t approve the installation of R Studio and other tools onto each of the team member’s computers.  That team spent three weeks waiting to get the necessary tools installed on their machines before they could get started diving into any data.  This is an extreme case of course, but things like this happen regularly in my experience.

Hiring the best people and building / buying the best systems aren’t enough either. You need to have a good ‘data culture’, meaning you have to have people that understand data, understand how to use data. Additionally, your organization needs to understand the dichotomy of data – it is both important and not important at the same time.     Yes data is important and yes data projects are important, but without all the other things combined (people, strategy, systems, process, etc), data is just data.  Data is meaningless unless you convert it to information (and then convert it yet again into knowledge).  To convert data, you need a company culture that allows people the freedom to ‘convert’ data into information / knowledge.

So…you think you have the best strategy, people, systems, process and culture, yes?  You think you’ve done everything right and your data projects are set up for success. I hate to tell you, but your data project is going to fail. If you have the right strategy, people, systems, process and culture in place, you aren’t guaranteed success but you will be in a much better position to recover from that failure.

Is IT & the CIO set up for failure?

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

A new video over on the Enterprise CIO Forum with Bill Laberis in apost titled Are we setting CIOs up for failure?.

Bill’s video is embedded below for your viewing. Its short but asks a good question – Are we setting the CIO up for failure?

So…are we setting CIOs up for failure?

Bill thinks the answer is “Yes”. He points to all the things that a CIO is now being asked to do as proof…and says that the future CIO (and IT) must step away from a good portion of IT operations and put more focus on the ‘strategic’ activities.

Sound familiar? It should (if you are a regular reader).

That said…I believe operations is important.  Just as important as every other part of the organization. But…should the CIO be focused on operations?  Or…a stronger question…should IT operations go the route of rest of the operational staff within organizations (you know…the electricians, janitors, plumbers, facilities, etc)?

I don’t think so…but with the focus of most CIO’s on governance, processes and metrics, how do these CIO’s move away from operations and into the “C Suite” to talk about strategy and tactics instead of their focus on operations?

Do we see that split between operations and business technology that I’ve written about before? Or…do we see CIO’s stepping out of the operational mindset and allowing their staff to focus on operations?  I know many CIO’s who would have a hard time ignoring IT operations, budgets and the minutea of ‘running IT’ but I think they’ll have to do it.  That…or allow the business technology functions to run away without them.

What do you think? Are we setting CIO’s and the IT group up for failure by asking too much? Or…are we assuming that the IT professional / CIO cannot change their mindset and focus to  adapt and deliver what the organization needs them to deliver?

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

Are you ready to accept failure?

Success 02 By PaDumBumPsh on flickr

Are you ready to accept failure?  Can you live with yourself if you don’t succeed?

When I was growing up, winning was a big thing.  You won or lost. You won at sports.  You succeeded at school.  Or you didn’t.  There wasn’t anything good about losing…no ‘participation’ trophies…no recognition for losing.

Succeeding and winning was everything.

Everyone fails though.   Nobody is perfect.  Nobody succeeds at every thing they do. With success comes failure. When one person succeeds, someone else is most likely to fail.  That’s not a bad thing though…failure is acceptable if you learn from that experience, right?

Take an example from my new found interest….the world of trading & investing. In the investment world, nobody succeeds all the time.  Heck…most traders are happy if they have 50% win ratio (I’m currently at a 53% win ratio…and I’m ecstatic about that) The key to succeeding long term when you ‘only’ win half your attempts is to ensure you manage your risk appropriately. Peter Lynch, that icon of the investing world, sums up the idea of success / failure in the investing world with:

In this business if you’re good, you’re right six times out of ten. You’re never going to be right nine times out of ten. (HT @Fibline for the quote)

Failure is perfectly acceptable, if you’ve approached that failure correctly and learn from your failure.

Are you allowing yourself to be right six times out of ten?  Are you happy with a 50% win ratio?

How about a having win rate of 5% (1 win out of 20 attempts)?  Would that you make you happy…or angry? Most people would absolutely hate a 5% win rate.

But…some folks can accept that rate and move on.  They learn from their successes and failures.

Take OfficeMax as an example. Scott Brinker recently shared a story about OfficeMax’s digital marketing efforts in a post titled Experimental Marketing: 1 out of 20 ain’t bad.  OfficeMax had 1 successful website (their “Elf Yourself” website) out of 20 attempts.  They built 20 different websites, each with a reason behind it and expectation that it would work.

But…out of those 20, only 1 of them – the Elf Yourself site – succeeded.  The remaining 19 were quietly turned off.

Would a 5% win rate be OK with you? Would it be OK with your company?

Would you or your company ever allow a project to kick off that had a 1 in 20 chance of succeeding?  Probably not…but what if you kicked off 20 projects, each with compelling business cases, and only 1 succeeded?  Would you take the time to understand what worked and what didn’t in those 20 projects or would you fire the people in charge of those projects?

Success is wonderful.  Failure is just as wonderful…if you learn from it.

Now…in the trading world, you wouldn’t really want a 5% win rate…you’d quickly run out of money.  In the world of Marketing, IT and Technology…a 5% win rate isn’t ideal either..but sometimes you’ve got to have the guts to make a decision that might just lead to a low success rate on projects…and you might just learn a great deal about how to get better the next time.

Today’s IT project success rate is hovering around 30 to 35 % depending on what study you read.  Are organizations & IT groups learning from the failures of those projects that aren’t succeeding?  In my experience, no….those failed projects are written off and never looked at again.

So…are you prepared for failure?  Ready to accept it and learn from it?  If you want to succeed more in the future…you should be.

Image Credit: “Success 02 by By PaDumBumPsh” found on flickr. Make sure you jump over and read the small print…It’ll make you giggle…at least it made me 🙂

Learning from Failure

The Slow Leadership blog has an interesting post about “Practicing Conscious Incompetence“. What is Conscious Incompetence? In a nutshell, it is the act of learning from failure, but Slow Leadership defines it as:

“Conscious Incompetence” is doing something that you know you can’t yet do, let alone do well, for the purpose of learning how to do it better. It’s allowing yourself to make a mess and get things wrong, because you’ll never know how to do better until you get past that point. And it’s the basis of all learning. If you can’t allow yourself to make mistakes and probably look silly doing it; if you can’t allow yourself to attempt what you know you won’t be able to do at first; if you can’t allow yourself to take the risk of screwing up; then you also can’t allow yourself to learn or develop.

Its refreshing to see others talk about something that I’ve always believed in. All the theory in the world is worth very little if someone doesn’t apply it in the real world…and applying theory usually results in failure somewhere. Every person and organization should have the strength to step up, try something and move on if it fails.

Leaders should understand that their organization should embrace failure when it happens. The failure should be accepted, dissected to understand the reasons behind it, and then the organization should recover from the failure and move forward. Lora Banks sums it up nicely when she writes in her blog post titled ‘Leadership Skill: Recover, Don’t Persevere“:

The big difference between persevering and recovering through failure is that recovery requires a pause and a conscious choice about where you go from here based on what you have learned from failing. Webster defines persevering as, “to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning”.  Recovery is about fully stepping in, once again, to your leadership and moving forward with the new information rather than in spite of the learning.

According to a story recounted in a newsletter from the New & Improved website, Warren Buffett, the semi-celebrity CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, the act of making a mistake (and failing) is essential to the decision making process. Mr Buffett once told David Sokol, the CEO of a Berkshire Hathaway controlled company, that:

David, we all make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t make decisions.

This comment was after Mr. Sokol told Buffett that they would have to write off $360 million for the year due to a project that didn’t work out as expected.

Not many companies can afford $360 million mistakes, Would you or your organization respond to a mistake of such magnitude in this same manner? What would happen if you were a CEO of a $10 million company and you were told by one of your VP’s that the $3 million R&D project was a failure? Would you try to assign blame and fire the VP or would you take a step back and dissect the failure and move forward with the ‘lessons learned’ from the project?

A person/organization who truly understands the art of learning from and recovering from failure should be stronger after living through the failure…as long the failure isn’t a ‘deadly’ one that pushes the organization/person into bankruptcy. A person/organization who learns from their failures should never have a ‘deadly’ failure because they’ve already learned what not to do from smaller failures and should be able to avoid the large ones.

[tags] Change, Innovation, creativity, learning from failure, learning by failling [/tags]

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