INCIS epitomized major, brutal system failure

We can continue to label it, and other initiatives, as failures or we can innovate on the world stage. There’s really only one choice worth taking.

Full disclosure. For approximately 4 years, as a senior serving police officer, I was the Project Director of INCIS. That period opened up the world of ‘megaproject’ management to me and revealed that the management systems and methodologies, mainly project based, used world-wide were, and are, not fit for purpose, and if we continue with them the failure rates will remain at over 90%. My choice when I left Police was to pretend that part of my career never happened, rant like a idiot, or try to fix the problems. Once I stopped ranting, I chose to do the latter based on the assumptions that there was an opportunity to develop fit-for-purpose management technology, and that this technology would focus on Whole-of-Business rather than just narrow project disciplines. Our business R&D, in latter years supported by Callaghan Innovation, has therefore focused on supporting new, more dynamic organizational models based on success and results. Along the way we’ve developed a business solution and framework that supports multiple organizational types, including that of the ‘megaproject.’ And that’s the first clue. The ‘megaproject’ is not a project. It’s an organization; an ecosystem.

…management systems and methodologies, mainly project based, used world-wide were, and are, not fit for purpose, and if we continue with them the failure rates will remain at over 90%.

INCIS (Integrated National Crime Information System) set the standard for major project failure in New Zealand Public Sector, or at least that’s the widespread perception even now some decades on. As its long-term Project Director I could easily defend a contrary position but that’s not what this blog is about. This is a conversation about badly needed innovation. It’s about understanding that the continued failure of large, complex projects, actually projects generally, is a world-wide problem. It’s about realizing that no-one out there anywhere in the world has managed to fix this problem. It’s putting aside all the organizational theory, all the misguided opinions, all the damaging perceptions, all the project management BS, and fixing it. Most of all it’s not about looking backwards and relitigating rights and wrongs. That’s pointless. It’s about realizing that genuine innovation in any situation comes from practitioners, and in this case, people who have faced the daily rigours of managing a major initiative. And I guess that’s the first lesson. It shouldn’t be that hard.

It’s about understanding that the continued failure of large, complex projects, actually projects generally, is a world-wide problem. It’s about realizing that no-one out there anywhere in the world has managed to fix this problem.

Major initiatives, such as INCIS, struggle under the weight of blame. Astoundingly many people assume that failure is inevitable and that mindset permeates thinking and perception from the outset. The standard statement is ‘if you have to get the contract out of the bottom drawer you are in trouble’. The reality is that there will be managers with that contract tucked under their arms from day one. and that can be very damaging especially if it’s used to continually beat-up your commercial providers. Here’s a different approach. Turn the contract (in our case 14 volumes) into a living ‘document’ by taking all the key contract deliverables and milestones and building them into on-line schedules and dependencies. These then become part of your suite of interconnected project and programme plans. Bottom line, you should always be able to match an invoice for services delivered to relevant contract deliverables and milestones.

This also illustrates a very salient point. The ‘One-plan’ which consists of a suite of highly connected plans, and which is the single-source-of-truth across the initiative is your plan. Yours, not your commercial or consulting partners. It’s standard practice to rely on the project planning expertise of your commercial providers and consulting partners. If you do this you are abdicating responsibility to your partners, and you’re ignoring the need to develop and use your own in-house capability. If you fail to own the ‘plan’ you cannot guarantee the result. I’d go so far as to posit that owning the plan and managing to it removes the need for the various externally imposed oversight mechanisms, such as Gateway reviews, currently used to check-box initiatives. Build the plan, and then invite external parties who might want to review and comment into the plan, in real-time and supported by evidence.

If you fail to own the ‘plan’ you cannot guarantee the result.

Owning the plan, and the strategies that underpin it, illustrates one of the most important aspect of managing any type of business – ownership. There’s a worrying trend emerging with Platform providers convincing public sector management teams they can build their own solutions in-house by using various bits of their toolkit to be integrated over time. The questions that need to be asked is why organizations believe they’re able to build in-house when that has failed in the past, and who owns, with the constant turnover of management personnel, the long-term investment and outcomes. To fully understand the challenge of ownership issue it’s worth considering the broader concept of ‘the plan’.

At its best the ‘plan’ is about executing to strategy. This is an area that screams out for improvement with a 70% failure rate internationally. In effect, you are building a living strategic plan across your initiative. Why a strategic plan for something that’s just a project? Because it isn’t just a project and this represents one of the most fundamental flaws in the management of ‘megaprojects.’ When you are talking about Private Public Partnerships the relationships and accountabilities across all the players involved must be embedded in a series of agreed strategies, KPI’s, Benefits and delivery frameworks. It’s all too easy for the strategic drivers espoused by the customer to take precedence when a more mature approach is to ensure all strategic drivers including those of the providers, such as fair profit for fair work, are also be on the table. If you don’t do this it’s too easy to fall into the trap of blaming your providers for changes you have imposed based on something that sounds like ‘moral high ground.’ The structuring of the public sector ‘megaproject’ must be based on Businesses (often commercial) working within Businesses (usually Public Sector) and accommodating all the dynamics brought by the various parties involved.

The structuring of the public sector ‘megaproject’ must be based on Businesses (often commercial) working within Businesses (usually Public Sector) and accommodating all the dynamics brought by the various parties involved.

During the time I was the INCIS Project Director I spent 46% of my time writing status reports that, as it turns out, no-one believed. That’s time I can never get back but more importantly the reporting process poisoned the well, and this happened every time another report was tabled. This is one of the areas where the biggest gains can be made. But it relies on one key premise. Everyone, including stakeholders, must embrace the concept of Truth-in-plain-sight. There is no more important aspect than the truth. The team must always be in a position to present the exact state of play with all the supporting evidence, and for that to be accepted rather than viewed as the opportunity to attack your own team. In my experience, standard rear-vision-mirror reports will disembowel you and your team. True innovation requires rich ‘conversational management.’ It requires the celebration of every success no matter how small. It requires a recognition that plans change and that teams often unearth unanticipated value. It’s impossible to portray all of this in dry, dusty point-in-time reports. Dynamic interactive storyboards on the other hand are a mechanism that inspire the passion that fuels your initiative. Any major initiative requires storytelling at its best.

“…in our experience, INCIS does not come even close to rating the prize for the worst failure we have witnessed. It is about average on the disappointment scale (although high on the ambition scale): it produced both less than its promoters hoped (and hyped), but more than its detractors assert.” Jim Taylor, a Montreal University emeritus professor of communication, and an information technology expert at the university, Elizabeth Van Every.

I’ve enjoyed thinking about and writing this blog because I know the problem of ‘megaprojects’ can be solved given a healthy dose of practicality. This will be one of a number of ‘INCIS’ blogs as there are many lessons to be learned and conversations to be had. I have a passion for this area of management and are happy to talk about it with anyone, anytime. Buyer beware: If you are in the market for a solution, or even need an initiative rescuing, I will introduce you to the work we’ve done and which we are very proud off. At the very least we’ll enjoy the sharing of ideas.

A friend once told me that no-one would take a ‘megaproject’ solution developed at the bottom end of the world seriously. My response was ‘why not, if we’ve solved the problem, when no-one else has!’

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5 thoughts on “INCIS epitomized major, brutal system failure”

  1. Brendon Livingstone

    Hi Tony, really interesting points and thanks for posting – it takes me back. As you know I was early in my career when I worked as a young Business Analyst on INCIS. I find it interesting to look back today and think what have I learned since that could have helped. Here are couple of very incomplete thoughts:
    – Megaprojects are complex – which means less certainty and consequently more risk. When you look back at INCIS there were lots of people involved (complex human behavour), new technologies, dependencies, politics (you would have seen more of that than me) etc., all increasing the complexity of the undertaking. Smaller projects are often less complex and easier to successfully deliver. Intentionally not becoming a megaproject could be a consideration for those involved in future large projects.
    – Alignment is important – you’ve already covered this well as alignment has always been a key focus of Legend. The way we incentivise drives behaviour and sometimes this behaviour may not align with the goals of the project. For example, on any project contract staff earning a good rate may be incentivised to draw out the project to keep continuity of work and the good rate. This is just one example, but I’m sure there are many factors at play on large projects that generate misalignment.
    – Need to accommodate change – Agile was not a ‘thing’ back in INCIS days, and we were using the latest software development thinking of the time. But with the benefit of hindsight and today’s new ways of working, when I look at the volumes of requirements I documented upfront, I think we were creating in a way that was not as strongly accommodating of change, and for a project that is due to last years, change is inevitable. I don’t necessarily see Agile by itself as an answer, it is not a panacea and it seems tough to make it work successfully on a large scale. But some of Agile’s values, like “responding to change” would be useful principles with supporting flexible ways of working on a large project. If we’d been able to run the project in a way that allowed it to flex and respond quickly as change inevitably occurred, perhaps this would have helped (again ideas for next time, because the industry thinking wasn’t focused on this in the mid nineties).
    Good one Tony, thanks again for posting. Brendon

    1. Hi Brendon…thanks for your very thoughtful comments…I agree with everything you say…I think we are in a time where change in management is possible but as Kiwi’s we need to believe in our own ability to innovate and then share…I’m now starting to talk with organisations about ‘stories that matter.’ Not methodologies, not Big-4 consultant ‘thinking’ but stories of endeavour and success. We’re open and the world is closed. Let’s help them come out of it…and demonstrate we know some stuff. I still think megaproject-management is a big growth opportunity. Stay in touch Brendon. I always valued your thinking and energy.

    2. I’d also like to explore agile-at-scale with you. We are finding that management structure and oversight is essential but that teams often take a year or two to realise that and this causes mucho damage along the way.

  2. Hi Tony,
    I congratulate you on the content of your INCIS blog, and also for your dogged mindful pursuit of a positive contribution to projects small to mega in scale.
    I can’t pretend to have any notable experience in project management but as life would have it, after Police..,I moved into a micro business area involved in PV Solar..which in turn meant an introduction to China, business in China and indeed how the Chinese culture deals with projects. Setting aside all the things that tend to put off rational discussions about life in China, there is general if reluctant western world agreement that their successful management of projects whether they be massive infrastructure, commercial buildings, gigafactories, transport systems etc etc , is quite staggering, and there are plenty of examples for anyone to see, via youtube. Culture at both an organisational level as well as at the base human individual level is a prime factor in their successes, and there is a lot to be learned from this very old civilization. Ironically, as many who travel to China and understand to some degree how it ticks, China has borrowed seemingly the good parts of capitalism and integrated those bits with a govt system which is really quite divorced from what most of us were schooled in the “old days” to recognize as communism.
    Set all of that aside, I suspect that behind the scenes and even despite Trumpism, much is being learnt by Western organisations about Chinese project management. Perhaps like China, we need to be open to the useful influence of other cultures and thinking as the planet grows ever smaller.

    1. Hi Bruce. Thanks for your comments. Your reflections are fascinating, and I’m certainly keen to explore further We can certainly learn from other cultures. Regards.

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