November 28, 2017
In many years of experience of IT-intensive projects, I have found that there are four conditions that must be met to maximise the chances of success. Putting it another way, if some or all of the conditions are not met, the likelihood of failure is raised.
The first condition is that there must be a clear and agreed objective – what the project is intended to deliver. In addition, all those involved should want the project to succeed. This includes not just the people doing the work, and their management, but also those who are expected to use the result. For example, a project to deliver a system for people providing healthcare should get buy-in from the doctors and others who are expected to use it.
The second is that the people doing the work should know what they are doing; expertise really does matter. This includes all the people involved, not just technicians. Those making purchasing decisions, for instance, should understand what they are buying or they are likely to succumb to the lowest cost shoot-out.
The third is that there should be sufficient resources available for implementing the project, and during its life after completion. Resources obviously include time, and money to pay for the people, facilities and products required. They may also include the provision of trained staff to ensure that the project continues to deliver what is expected.
The final condition is that there should be a willingness to report problems and to deal with them as quickly as possible. There is always a danger that problems are swept under the carpet because they are inconvenient. Those pointing out difficulties are sometimes discouraged from doing so and even penalised. The right approach is to encourage people to raise doubts and questions at the earliest opportunity. The only offence should be failure to report difficulties.
All this seems to me to be obvious, so it’s surprising that many projects start and continue without meeting the conditions. In particular, the final condition – responsiveness to problems – is all too often ignored in IT projects. The result is that the industry does not learn from its mistakes. This is in stark contrast with civil aviation, where every deviation from the expected, up to and including accidents, is investigated and lessons shared across the industry.
The above conditions can be applied to other kinds of project in the private and public sectors. I’d like to consider Brexit as a project and see how it stacks up against them.
It falls at the first hurdle. The government, Conservative MPs and opposition Labour Party are all split. They are unable to reach any real agreement internally and across parties on what is required. The government was completely unprepared for the referendum result. After the leave vote, we were simply told that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, without any more explanation, because no contingency plans had been made. The current position is that the UK will leave the Customs Union and Single Market. We are told that’s what people voted for, although the question posed was simply ‘remain in the EU’ or ‘leave’. Brexit affects everyone in the UK, and many beyond, particularly in Ireland. The UK population is split, with no indication of a coming together; there is no national consensus. A significant number of people would like to scrap the whole idea of Brexit.
The second condition is expertise. The Cabinet is deeply divided, which has resulted in contradictory messages coming from different ministers. I also question the competence of some of them, who appear to be out of their depth. The 2017 general election result, which fatally weakened the Prime Minister and put her in hock to the DUP for support, has not helped. She cannot get rid of some of the non-performers or trouble makers.
Resources are also a problem. The cost of the settlement to leave the EU – the so-called ‘divorce bill’ – leaves less for other activity. The civil service has to grow to do all the work involved. HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) will require substantially higher numbers of people, not to mention IT system capacity, if it is to cope with leaving the Customs Union and trade negotiations. How the people can be recruited in time is not clear.
Finally, there is no willingness to face up to problems and solve them. Almost every issue raised is denied, or we are told to be more positive and think of the opportunities Brexit will deliver. I have some sympathy (not much!) for the government as all governments struggle with how to handle problems. Any change of mind results in tabloid headlines screaming ‘U-turn’. One of the most intractable problems at present is the border across the island of Ireland. It’s hard to see how an open border can be reconciled with leaving the Customs Union.
Perhaps things will work out, leading to a decent set of arrangements between the UK and the EU. However, it does not look promising at present. Future historians and policy makers may use Brexit as a textbook case study of how not to do it.
 Bertrand Meyer, a professor at the ETH in Zurich, discussed this subject in a blog in 2012. See http://bertrandmeyer.com/2009/08/21/the-one-sure-way-to-advance-software-engineeringpbye