project failures
November 20, 2015

Can Customer Insight Leaders learn from IT project failures?

By Paul Laughlin

9 out of 10 projects fail, according to BCG. Are you suffering from insight project failures?

Last week I was fortunate to attend an Institute of Directors’ Business Breakfast, being hosted by Dotted Eyes. The topic was “IT for non-IT directors” and focussed on how to improve the effectiveness of your projects. This was achieved through the metaphor of a safari and different big beasts to beware of through the project lifecycle.

At first this felt nostalgic, reminding me of all those years I spent in IT roles (including project & programme management). Leading projects always gives you opportunity to see plenty of project failures along the way.

But as we worked through 7 tips to improve the chances of your project being a success, I was struck by something else. Firstly, that this content was clearly being shared from personal experience. Then, that it reminded me of my experience as a Customer Insight Leader. Many of these tips applied to how to succeed in that leadership challenge.

So, my thoughts turned to blogging. Here are my recollections of those tips for IT project success & what they might mean for Insight Leaders:

Stakeholder Management

Identifying the key stakeholders and ensuring all parties are suitably engaged early on is the first key to avoid project failures.

Similarly, insight leaders can benefit from stakeholder mapping. Human nature means sometimes people will oppose your insight plans, just because they were not consulted. Near the outset, map out who has an interest and who has influence. Focus your efforts on the most powerful & interested leaders in your organisation.


Many a project manager will talk darkly about “scope creep“. It has been the death knell of projects that ended up simply out of control. Promising the earth is no good if such a stretch means nothing is actually delivered. Under promise & over deliver has always been a good business maxim, as well as a way to avoid project failures

Coupled with that, it’s worth insight leaders ensuring that their briefing process include a clear communication back to stakeholders of what will & crucially what won’t be delivered. Analysts can be creative & flexible but controlling scope matters too their work too.

Are your #CustomerInsight sponsors clear on what is #OutOfScope? Click To Tweet

Business Case

If I had a penny for every project that has promised to improve customer retention, I’d be a rich man by now. Accountability for delivering on cost benefit analysis forecasts is too often lacking. Too many “successful” projects were actually project failures if held fully accountable to benefits realisation.

But as well as the world of major projects that become money pits, greater commerciality can also help prioritise insight work. There are often unknowns as insights or hypotheses are sought, nevertheless with a seemingly endless stream of possible business questions, prioritisation is needed. Simon Norie has shared previously how this discipline can help.


As was amusingly shared, this does not equate to Highly Important Person’s Personal Opinion (HIPPO). It’s inevitable in the political minefield of business that senior leaders will seek to impose their preferences or agendas. Skilled project managers will however help them see the bigger picture & through diplomacy & courage avoid the project being sidetracked.

Customer Insight Leaders need this same big picture thinking & tenacity. Requirements should be gleaned from all the key parties, often crucially including front-line colleagues. Writing them down can help, but visualising them or bringing them to life in ‘use cases‘ or ‘customer journeys‘ can be even more powerful.

Design & Build stages may still follow the traditional waterfall method. These days, however, they are likely to apply one of several flavours of agile development. Whether this looks more like exploratory throw-away prototyping, iterative programming or cross-functional SWAT teams, these stages still matter. However, the 7 tips shared here compliment rather than dictate these technical stages. In the related world of Customer Insight, I’ve also found teams with different technical approaches all benefit from improving other skills.


Projects that are running late all to often cut the time for testing. As one wise project leader has said, in fact you always test, it just depends whether you do it before or after you ‘go live’. Most companies would prefer not to expose their customers to the frustration of testing new systems, so the former is preferable.

Sometimes I find this rigour is also missing in insight teams. Have you as their leader ensured a robust process of peer review and reconciliation against known sources? Nothing erodes the credibility of an insight team faster than becoming know for unreliable numbers.

Project Management

Ok, this is not a stage like the tips listed above. Rather we were reminded that projects are all about effective people management & thus are art as well as science. This is so true of leading customer insight functions.

As a leader you should give time to hone your own people management, influencing & communication skills, just as much as you value technical knowledge. Most senior insight leaders spend most of their time helping the business use insight effectively & ensuring the right people are motivated in the right roles. None of that requires coding.

#projects #fail at the #beginning not the end Click To Tweet

Avoid project failures with Planning

Lack of sufficient contingency or insufficient time given to plan or identify risks at the outset, are common causes of project failure. It is a truism that “most projects fail at the beginning not at the end“. The same is true of much analysis.

More time is often needed for an analysis planning approach, identifying a clear hypothesis & designing how it can be tested. It is worth reminding ourselves and our teams that working at this is working against human nature. The Planning Fallacy has been identified by Behavioural Economics and we all suffer from such an optimism bias.

Do you deliver customer insight as projects? Do you see relevant lessons from the world of project management? Do share your experience here or on social media.