Confessions of a 'recovery professional'

Confessions of a 'recovery professional'

A CIO said I was like the guy who turned up the day after hurricane Katrina -- I come in when technology transformations fail.

The reasons for an initiative to fail are varied. Early warning signs are missed altogether or corrective actions fail to understand and address the true causes. Before a recovery can take place, it is important to understand why failures occur.

Poor stakeholder identification and management

Poor stakeholder management is one of the main reasons that problems occur. Not all stakeholders are identified therefore not all of them are managed. There is a focus on senior people, budget holders, sponsors, and executives. People closer to the action are often ignored e.g. existing end-users. This makes for a dysfunctional relationship between those involved in the project and those on the outside. When problems occur, relationships breakdown and finger-pointing occurs. Getting as many people onboard and keeping them engaged is vitally important.

Requirements change

Initiatives that take more than 90 days to deliver will invariably suffer changes to requirements. Failures occur by trying to accommodate too many changes without a launch date change.

Reasons to recover

It's easy to identify an initiative that requires recovery. The signs are obvious to those involved and also to interested parties on the outside looking in.

Repeated date slippage

If a schedule change has occurred more than twice then a recovery is likely. Changing launch dates more than twice is a key sign that something is wrong. This is especially true if dates are missed late in the cycle.

Budget overruns

Spiralling costs are never good. If costs go beyond 10 percent of original budget (which normally includes a contingency element) then a governance and management change is required.

Scope slippage

In order to meet an original launch date, requirements may be trimmed back. If this happens too often, the project is in danger of invalidating itself.

Any or all of the above

Usually just one of the above would result in a recovery intervention but more often than not, even when all three are present, initiatives continue regardless.


Recovering any situation is a matter of degrees. The best case scenario occurs before customers (internal or external) are involved. Once customers are involved, the worst case scenario starts to develop. Internal customers are much easier to manage and their complaints are less likely to leave the organisational boundaries. External customers on the other hand are harder to manage. Customers' complaints can filter through to the media and start to snowball.

Recovering any situation in the media spotlight brings unwanted pressure and attention to an already difficult situation.

Incredibly, recognising that there is a problem is a big part of the recovery process. It's always best to ensure that this is done before a programme can be recovered. It's important to ensure that all involved parties understand that there is a problem and that external help is required. Sponsors and stakeholders should make all parties aware that a team effort will be required to salvage the situation. This pre-work is the foundation for a successful recovery, and results in people on the initiative being supportive when help arrives.

If there is significant reluctance to admit failure or fault, then issues drag on without resolution. This damages all involved and eventually turns the initiative toxic causing an exodus of personnel. This makes a recovery highly unlikely as momentum and key intellectual property are lost.

Read more: Leadership is demonstrated, not measured

The recovery professional

Recovering any situation is highly emotive for senior stakeholders. Often, jobs and careers are at stake. During a programme recovery opportunity in Asia, the CIO I worked with remarked that I was like the guy who turned up the day after hurricane Katrina. Such is the perception of chaos, pain, and devastation that people equate this to a natural disaster. Whilst in this case the recovery was nowhere near on the same scale as hurricane Katrina, the executives felt equally helpless, powerless, and at a complete loss to resolve the situation they faced.

It is necessary to bring in a different approach, thinking, and skills to fix the problems. Albert Einstein once said "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them".

Hollywood has provided characters against which recovery professionals such as I have been compared. In the past I've been referred to as Mr. Wolf (from Pulp Fiction), and also Michael Clayton (George Clooney's character in the movie of the same name).

People involved in programme recovery are often seen as the professional's professional - the person the so called experts call when help is needed.

Whilst Hollywood has provided colourful characters to which professionals can be compared, it has also given rise to certain euphemisms which are also used: cleaner/fixer/closer.

There are several requirements to becoming a successful recovery professional.

You have to bring your own tools, processes and be self-sufficient

By the time the client gets around to provisioning corporate LAN access or an e-mail address, the recovery work could be over. The goal is to be effective from the moment the contract is signed.

I once recovered a programme and delivered it in 28 days (it was three months overdue and US$5 million overspent).

You need unique and specialised skills

The entire process is about degrees of control, change, drive, and persistence. Each recovery is unique and requires highly versatile, skilled, experienced personnel, making decisive changes needed to recover a situation.

In my background of skills and expertise, I leverage my linguistics training to enhance stakeholder management.

Linguists breakdown person-to-person communication into factual content (7 percent), tone of voice (38 percent), and body language (55 percent). This means that 93 percent of communication can be observed without understanding the actual content of the communication taking place.

Over the years I have found this to be incredibly useful. An ability to read, manage, and diffuse potentially escalating situations before they go too far has served me well. It also helps when dealing with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and seniority.

Given the current trend towards outsourcing, offshoring, and global delivery, the emphasis on clear, effective communication has never been greater.

Read more: CIO Upfront: Enterprise architecture and the legacy system conundrum

You need to work with what you have

There is a common misconception that recovery work is all about starting again. Recovery situations are much more restrictive. In most cases you have to work with existing staff, code, and processes. Personnel can't be removed, with rare exceptions made for 'blockers', those who actively resist outside help.

It's worth noting that a programme which needs to be recovered goes through significant pain. A stressful situation is usually made worse as people who are already under a great deal of pressure find the recovery process more stressful in the initial phase. This is due to a shift in focus and process, which more often than not cannot be equated to success by those heavily involved in the day-to-day struggle.

Transparency and realism

Full transparency is key to a successful recovery. Programmes cannot be recovered in secret, nor can they be recovered without the support, cooperation, and help of all those involved. Building a shared recovery plan which all are bought into is essential.

Reporting progress is essential. Daily reporting, whilst onerous, can quickly focus attention on morale boosting easy wins.

There needs to be a healthy dose of realism for all those involved. Recovering a project doesn't mean an ideal outcome; it's about accepting a less than perfect outcome on a journey of continuous improvement.

Understand the people equation

In my experience, recovery is always about the people and seldom about the technology.

The resistance to change by incumbent personnel is grossly underestimated and misunderstood.

Executives fail to appreciate the culture clash when working with off-shore/outsource partners. The competency disparity between internal staff and externally contracted resources serves to sour the mix even more. A lack of in-house professional project expertise further divorces success from the outcome.

After recovery

Once an initiative has been recovered, it is up to the stakeholders to follow through on the recommendations, changes and lessons learned to prevent the same situation from recurring. However, experience has shown that not enough will be done.

In an industry that is still maturing, and with the emphasis on technology, the people side of the equation is the one that is frequently overlooked.

Lasting change occurs when executives that have the courage to recognise a Recovery situation, make a firm commitment to continuous improvement, better communication, and greater accountability.

Auckland-based Bradley de Souza is an internationally recognised CIO/CTO who has specialised in change and transformation across industries around the world. Reach him

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Tags IT managementdisaster recoveryhurricane katrinaBradley de Souza

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