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A nightmare before Halloween: when a project becomes a bad dream.

It's that time of year when the national psyche turns to ghoulish stories and things that go bump in the night. So, it seems timely to talk about ... a nightmare project. We have all heard tell of the project that wrecked a career or even a company. Some of us even have experienced the nightmare and lived to tell the tale. Normally, in this column, we try to be positive and upbeat and to tell bad stories only to illustrate solutions, as avoidance strategies, and life lessons. This month, in deference to Halloween, I'd like to talk about how weird it can get when a project really becomes a nightmare (cue evil laughter and the howling of wolves). This story is true, and it is personal and begs the question: Is catharsis possible without humor?

Sometimes, years later, the scene will revisit me at night, my project team in sessions for anger management and conflict resolution with the client's HR department. Like Harry Potter sticking his head into the Pensieve, I can see it now ...

Scene I

The scene: A dozen grizzled project veterans sitting around in a circle. Anger, frustration, impatience, and condescension permeate the atmosphere.

Empathetic Client HR Manager: "Jim, you seem angry at the software vendor. Why is that?"

Jim: "They sold you a bill of goods. They are lying to you. They are stealing your money. They are telling lies about us."

Empathetic Client HR Manager: "And how does that make you feel, Jim?"

Jim grinds his teeth as small flecks of foam begin to appear at the corners of his mouth.

Empathetic Client HR Manager: "Frank, you said the system should not go live."

Frank: "I think the worst possible outcome for your company would be this monstrosity would ever go live. If it were to go live, eventually you would realize it will never work adequately and you will have to kill it. Better to never breathe life into it."

Empathetic Client HR Manager: "Thank you, Frank. Colorful as always."

Members of the group look at the Empathetic Client HR Manager. Some of these guys are Vietnam combat veterans. If looks could kill, he would have gone down in a hail of bullets. As I see the tracers arcing from their eyes, the scene fades to black.

To paraphrase the Talking Heads, how did we get here?

What's the Option?

Looking back, this was the perfect storm of replacement projects. At that time, the vendor market was very restricted and uninviting. Having spent several months along with hundreds of thousands of dollars and done an extensive vendor search, the carrier's team members felt going back to management with the advice to try again later was not an option.

So, the team members proposed what they thought was the best vendor available for the job. In doing so, they chose the wrong vendor.

Next, they made a deal that committed them deeply and quickly, and then they didn't listen when the bad news started to seep out (naysayers were sent to anger management).

The software vendor, for its part, was new to the insurance vertical (and new as an organization), didn't know what it didn't know, and grew very rapidly, feeding on easily available venture capital that was awarded with minimal due diligence.

While there were misgivings at first, there always are some on a big, risky project, so the earliest stages felt OK. The first red flag was the discovery the newly acquired policy system did not support unattended renewals and did not have any way of recognizing independent agents--whoops, a very big deal for a personal lines/small commercial, independent agency carrier. (Disclaimer: My team was not involved in the search.)

More Nightmares

Of course, as our particular nightmare was unfolding, so were others in parallel universes. One of the things that killed this vendor in the end was, supported by the marketing muscle of a very large technology vendor acting as a partner, it sold multiple large replacement projects in a short time span.

Consequently, the same problems that surfaced with my client also were surfacing elsewhere. The proposed solution was to get the carriers together and create a "common project" to solve various shortcomings in the core application.

This probably was the only reasonable response to the situation, but now there was a whole new reality to deal with: A "package implementation" project had just become a development project that was no longer controlled by my client but rather by a committee of insurance carriers, some of which were much larger and more influential.

As the common project fiasco was heading down the runway trying to take off, the vendor was undergoing massive, uncontrolled growth, fueled by venture capital money. Finding a knowledgeable resource to answer the increasing backlog of detailed technical and application functionality questions, always difficult, became impossible.

My team was responsible for most of the client-side aspects of the project, including integration and reporting, so we needed to understand interface specifications and metadata schemas in order to do our work.

Answers took weeks to get and usually were completely or partially wrong. Often, the person who provided the initial incorrect answer was mysteriously unavailable to clarify, and the sequence would start again with another vendor representative.

Out of Sorts

About six months into the project, my team started feeding me increasingly urgent messages concerning the likelihood of failure. The whole team knew in its gut the project would fail--vendor staffing was inadequate both technically and in terms of domain knowledge; the software was being rebuilt and re-released in-flight; while we were supposed to hit a moving target in terms of specifying our work, the vendor clearly had minimal appreciation for the scope and complexity of an "industrial strength" policy administration system; and the vendor's management was becoming hostile to us as we probed for bedrock to build from.

However, you don't go to a client and convince it to shut down a multimillion-dollar project on the basis of "gut feel," even given it usually is right. Rational argument and data are required, and even then these are open to interpretation and speculation. How do you ever really know how long something will take or will cost--or whether it can be done at all--until it is done and complete?

At this point, two things happened. First, we started to feed clear messages to the client concerning the escalating risk profile of the project and requested project checkpoints to gather specific data. Second, the vendor management started a campaign to undermine the intent and professionalism of my team.

First, we were "not team players"; then we were "out to get them"; and finally, we wanted them and, by extension, the project "to fail." My team was a group of battle-hardened project veterans who knew what they were doing and had the best intent for our client.

Unfortunately, if our group was lacking anywhere it was in the area of diplomacy. Put a lack of nicety alongside a client in denial and a software vendor scratching and kicking for its life, and you get ... Anger Management and Conflict Resolution!

Never Ending

The nightmarish downward spiral continued for weeks as the client struggled mightily to form its own reality in the face of conflicting vendors. Some of the guys on my team were threatening to bail out because of the hostility and lack of client trust. The software vendor continued to push its version of reality at the client. The client continued to pay large amounts of money for a project over which it had lost control.

Of course, given time, reality (as in real reality) has a way of imposing itself on confusion and creating clarity.

It became apparent regardless of who said what, the vendor continued to miss delivery deadlines, and with the help of some formal project discipline and a lot of soul searching, the carrier finally concluded, indeed, the project should be halted.

This conclusion was correct. It took longer than it should have, and the project therefore cost more than it could have, but we all finally woke up to find the world still was turning and the birds still were singing.

The other carriers awoke from their parallel nightmares, and we all staggered forward from the wreckage. The cost in dollars, careers, and opportunities varied from vendor to vendor but was substantial everywhere. The aggregate waste exceeded $100 million. Careers were hurt.

Downward Spiral

The software vendor went from obscurity to celebrity to hot commodity to pariah in less than two years. It never recovered and rightly so. By the time the lawsuits were resolved and the best employees had fled, the vendor was a shell of failed dreams. In the following years, I would see its senior management occasionally at trade shows, like ghosts walking around unaware of their own demise.

They were cordial and asked after my company's well-being, but they were still in denial.

My guys got sent to anger management; the software vendor got sent to purgatory. To this day, I still don't know how deliberate its actions were. The vendor may have been staffed with true believers who simply could not accommodate an alternate reality in which failure was possible. Or maybe they were just greedy and venal.

That's the trouble with nightmares. You may forget them with time, but you may never really, fully understand them.

By George Grieve

George Grieve is CEO of CastleBay Consulting. Previously a CIO and still an acting consultant, he has spent much of the past 25 years with property/casualty insurers, assisting them in the search, selection, negotiation, and implementation of mission-critical, core insurance processing systems. He can be reached at 512-329-2619.
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Title Annotation:Shop Talk
Author:Grieve, George
Publication:Tech Decisions
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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