Why Projects Without Business Cases are Shot Down

I just had a customer attempt to start a project without a business case. Such projects are usually driven by the desire to use a specific technology and with a vague idea that this would somehow benefit the end user.

If the IT department is strong, some of these orphan projects get started. They might be successful. However, since the organization has no idea of the business benefit, it is blind luck if the benefits exceed the cost.

If the business prevention department (compliance/legal) is strongest, they are shot down. There is always a reason not to make any changes. A project without a business case can be mortally wounded by any objections about compliance, GDPR, security, etc.

That is why every project needs a business case. It prevents IT from wasting money on something that will not add value, and it prevents compliance & legal from killing projects with a positive business impact.

Do your projects have solid business cases? If not, get in touch, and I’ll help you.

A Value-Destroying Technical Innovation

The important part is not the technology itself. It is how it interacts with its surroundings.

The big Ethereum upgrade (aka “The Merge”) seems to have been successful from a technical standpoint. But it seems that the Ethereum community focused on the enormous technical challenge of merging the existing Ethereum blockchain with another without stopping either. The problem is that changing from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake turned Ether tokens from a currency into a security. When you “stake” your Ether, you earn interest. And suddenly, the Ethereum ecosystem is subject to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules. Consequently, Ether is down 26% this week.

You can implement highly advanced technology with enough skill, time, and money. But unless you have someone skeptical think through how your tech will interact with its environment, all of the tech wizardry might go unused. It might even be destroying value as the Ethereum Merge did.

Don’t Replace Production With IT

The public broadcaster here in Denmark has just announced they’ll be firing 47 journalists to hire more IT people. What the hell are they thinking?!

I’m all for well-staffed IT departments, but IT is supposed to be something that helps the business. When you start firing the people who actually create the product that is the reason your business exists, you are on the wrong path.

If you want more people in IT, present a business case that explains how these people will pay for themselves. That involves calculating a business benefit in dollars and comparing it to the cost of the new people. They should pay for themselves in 12 months. Things are changing much too rapidly to depend on the multi-year repayment schedules used in the past.

The Antidote to Value-Destroying Vanity Projects

Choosing the solution that is 100 times more expensive sounds absurd. Nevertheless, that is what the U.S. Congress has decided, which is why NASA is struggling to get its SLS rocket off the ground. It has nothing to do with putting a man on the moon and everything to do with keeping the big NASA factory in Alabama running. They don’t have the technology to compete with newer space companies like SpaceX but are cobbling together old Space Shuttle parts. They’ve actually been going around to museums in the U.S., taking out old space shuttle engines for the quixotic project foisted upon them by Alabama Senator Richard Shelby.

Some organizations face a similar challenge: The CEO or someone else in senior leadership has an idea for some technology, and IT is ordered to deliver it. It doesn’t matter if such a vanity project is practical, feasible, or cost-efficient. You cannot fight this kind of project individually because they are highly connected with the ego of one individual.

The solution is to establish a standard evaluation process for technology projects. Every project needs a business owner responsible for calculating the business benefit. Every project also has a technical owner responsible for calculating the cost, including the ongoing running costs after completion. If the benefit comfortably exceeds the cost, the project is qualified to enter the competition with other claims on company investment.

You might not have such a process because a rational decision might also kill some of the IT department’s most beloved resumé-enhancing projects…

User Blaming

The IT industry has its own version of victim blaming. I call it user blaming. That is what happens when you build an IT system without proper regard for the users’ reality. When the purported benefits do not materialize, the vendor points to the convoluted and impractical instructions given and claims that if only the users would follow the instructions, the system would work as advertised.

I was reminded of user blaming this weekend. I had worn out the burrs on my coffee grinder, and as is sadly often the case, a replacement part was more expensive than a new machine. Being a professional, I always read the instructions. They told me to clean the machine after each use. Since I only grind what I need, that would mean several cleanings a day. And the cleaning involved six steps, washing everything in lukewarm water, emptying out the beans, disassembling the grinder, cleaning the burrs with the supplied cleaning brush, and much more.

That is an abdication of responsibility. Just like when an IT vendor provides unrealistic and impossible-to-follow CYA instructions. Take responsibility. Build a quality product that works in real life.

User Experience Disasters

This week’s episode of my podcast Beneficial Intelligence is about User Experience disasters. Danes consistently rank among the happiest people in the world, but I can tell you for sure that it is not the public sector IT we use that makes us happy. We have a very expensive welfare state financed with very high taxes, but all that money does not buy us a good user experience.

Good User Experience (UX) is not expensive, but it does require that you can put yourself in the user’s place and that you talk to users. That is a separate IT specialty, and many teams try to do without it. It doesn’t end well. Systems with bad UX do not deliver the expected business value, and sometimes are not used at all. A system that is functionally OK but that the users can’t or won’t use is known as a user experience disaster.

We have a web application for booking coronavirus testing here in Denmark. First you choose a site, then you chose a data, and then you are told there are no times available at that site on that date. If a UX professional had been involved, the site would simply show the first available time at all the testing centers near you. We now also have a coronavirus vaccination booking site. It is just as bad.

As CIO or CTO, some of the systems you are responsible for offer the users a bad experience. To find these, look at usage statistics. If you are not gathering usage, you need to start doing so. If systems are under-utilized, the cause is most often a UX issue. Sometimes it is easy to fix. Sometimes it is hard to fix. But IT systems that are not used provide zero business value.

Listen here or find “Beneficial Intelligence” wherever you get your podcasts.