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Why Do So Many IT Projects Fail? Lack of Executive Sponsorship.

IT manager

In order to keep technology projects on time and on track, it’s important to identify and secure the right executive sponsor.

For private- and public-sector leaders, managing risk is a key component of every IT project. But the traditional approach of handing off accountability to vendors too often increases the risk of failure.

“The things we do to reduce risk are exactly what make us unsuccessful,” says Russ Nichols, California’s acting CIO and chief deputy director of the California Department of Technology. “We always talk about projects being on time and on budget, but does the value get realized?”

Failure happens all too often. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of IT projects don’t meet their goals, according to a 2017 report by the Project Management Institute. Almost half go over budget (43 percent) or are late (49 percent), and 14 percent fail completely. In the public sector, the outcomes may be even worse: The Brookings Institution looked at large federal IT projects over the course of a decade and found only 6 percent were successful.

That’s why an executive sponsor — the leader in the organization who has the authority, accountability and responsibility for the business problem an IT project is trying to solve — plays an essential role in putting the right people in the right roles and empowering them for success.

The key involves “people governance and building institutional sponsorship,” says David Morris, chairman of HiPER Solutions, a software-driven subscription service that advises executive sponsors on mitigating risk in large-scale projects. With the right guidance, Morris says, executive sponsors can assemble teams with diversity of thought and navigate stakeholder misalignments that arise when executing large IT projects and change programs.

“It’s about roles and mindsets,” he says. “It’s a new way of thinking about aligning the team and stakeholders to help ensure the business problem is addressed.”


The reasons projects fail are as predictable as they are varied:

Assigning roles based on the organizational chart. “People get put in boxes because of the title on their business card,” Nichols says. “They have to be invested in the outcomes.”

Contracts and objectives focused on performance criteria, not outcomes. While project management as a discipline has led to more sharply defined criteria, contracts and objectives “are simply tools,” Nichols says. “We need a mindset that’s different from poking at a document.”

Siloed project teams. Teams bring together expertise from different functional areas, from programming, network management, line-of-business leaders and so on. But too often each member “looks at their piece instead of the entire problem,” Nichols says. “All the pieces ultimately have to form a picture.”

Reactive project management. Change requests and newly unearthed constraints typically result in a reactive game of whack-a-mole. Too often, that means project leadership and staff lose sight of the overall objective.


IT modernization can only meet its full potential when it drives changes in the broader business — something only senior leadership can fully navigate.

“We can no longer separate the technology layer from the business practice. When you’re talking about fundamental changes to the business model, the sponsor has got to be engaged in the process,” says Nichols. “At some point they’re going to have to force an issue or change a process or policy that’s a hot button item.”

In defining these business changes, executive sponsors must play a key role. They must identify the right stakeholders — IT leaders, division heads, frontline business employees and multiple profiles of constituents — to help define the project, solidify goals and assess resources for the team. They must stay engaged during the entire process to help teams and vendors adjust accordingly as new challenges arise. And most importantly, they must have a stake in the project’s success.

“Sponsors are engaged in the flow of the process, not just the decisions,” Nichols says. “And they own it to the level that they’re willing to bet their career on its success.”


The most critical decision an executive sponsor can make is selecting the right project director. “It’s imperative that the sponsor is choosing somebody not just because of their technology or business chops. They’ve got to be able to marry those things to get to the right outcome,” Nichols says.

The project director’s role is simple: Identify the current state and desired endpoint, and then pinpoint “every obstacle between those two points and make them go away,” Nichols says.

Like executive sponsors, project directors must take ownership of the project. They have to be willing to work beyond their place in the organizational chart to find solutions. Similarly, they must assemble a team of other people who are invested in the project’s success and willing to work beyond their own organizational roles.

“The project director is like a head coach of a sports team, a talent manager,” Morris says. “The conventional wisdom is that you need to be technology savvy. But if you have an exceptional talent manager, they can rely on other technical experts and don’t need to be the subject matter expert.”


The executive sponsor and project director must be “joined at the hip,” according to Nichols. “They must speak the same mission, the same goals and the same language to get to a successful outcome.”

More importantly, it’s imperative that they have an ongoing relationship to touch base and challenge each other to find the best possible solutions throughout the life of the project. The executive sponsor’s role in these discussions is to push the project director’s thinking (and vice versa) and make sure they stay focused on the big-picture business needs and desired outcomes.

The executive sponsor must also provide political air cover and protect their project director for one simple reason: “If the project director is doing their job,” says Nichols, “they’re constantly putting themselves at risk by overreaching their positional authority.”


Executive sponsors also have to keep the following best practices in mind:

Change is constant, so embrace it. There’s no chance that an original plan will execute without surprises, which is why it is vital that executive sponsors remain engaged and willing to redefine the goals along the way.

Another key paradigm shift at all levels involves moving away from thinking of change requests as failures that should be minimized. “My goal is to get to the outcome,” Nichols says. “That can involve changing people, changing scope or changing the way we do something.”

Measure the team by its progress, not by waiting for the end product. Executive sponsors and project directors should pay close attention to how the team works together. And each member should feel ownership in the project’s overall success, not just with their own siloed role.

“If they can’t communicate and are competitive rather than collaborative, the product they produce is going to reflect that,” Nichols says.

Vendors are partners, but they cannot own the business problem. Executive sponsors should establish an expectation of trust and shared ownership — without signing away their own accountability for project outcomes.


With the right approach and the right mindset, executive sponsors can help ensure IT modernization projects are delivered on time and on budget, and that they help an organization deliver services more effectively and efficiently. Executive sponsorship is a lasting commitment to stay with a project for its entire life cycle, a commitment Nichols likens to marriage.

“You’re pledging yourself, your engagement, your air cover, and that you’ll be there,” he says.

For a downloadable copy of this story, visit the GovTech papers library
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