You’ve heard the drumbeat about IT project failure rates. You’ve probably heard mention of all the usual suspects like the lack of sponsor support, poor requirements and scope definition, lack of business relevance or bad communication. What might not be so apparent in all of this hand wringing is the real root cause. It’s the people. None of the items listed are technology based. For each one, the source is the failure of specific individuals or communities.

The most common response I see to this situation is to eliminate as many people components from the system as possible. New project-management software is purchased and installed. More rigorous business procedures are developed and documented. Automated monitoring is established. Every opportunity for frail human judgment is hunted down and eliminated.

While perhaps understandable, this approach is doomed to fail. The problem isn’t that our technology projects have too many humans. It’s that they have too few. Or, perhaps more accurately, that we pay too little attention to the humans we have. If we spent as much time on the capabilities and limitations of our system’s human components as we do on the capabilities and limitations of our system’s technology components, project failure rates would be much less of an issue.

What are people good for?

Many of the causes of project failures have their sources in the replacement of people strengths with technology tools. Relative to most technologies, people are much better at judgment, flexibility, communication and association.

Most production applications of technology are handling tasks from which any requirement for judgment have been removed. One simple example is those hated voicemail menus, which only occasionally match the options we’d like to really have. Humans are much better at handling those situations that require sifting through an indeterminate number of non-discrete options.

If you just walked out of some tense negotiation, you might be wondering about the claim that humans are more flexible than most technology. Certainly computers are more flexible than your average cat, but even those smart MIT computers work within an established set of parameters. People get grumpy about change, they drag their feet, but they can break out of established parameters when confronted with an unexpected or poorly defined situation.

To buy the idea that humans are strong communicators, one has to understand that simply presenting information is not the same as communicating. Posting something on a Web site isn’t the same as a conversation about it. To get a feel for the strength of human communication ask yourself why the number-one source of technical support is still the person in the next cubicle, even in companies with the most sophisticated on-line FAQs, help desks and computer-based training systems. Communication is an intricate, analog dance of which the storage and presentation of information are just a small part.

We humans get easily distracted, and that’s a virtue if properly channeled. It’s good for projects if we can quickly notice what we hadn’t planned for. It’s good for innovation if we can draw connections between where we’re focused and what else is catching our attention. The world is not cleanly divided into bits and bytes. Technology will serve us better if we retain accountability for dealing with those parts of the system that are, and must remain, analog.

What humans aren’t so much good for

So if humans have all these capabilities, why are they still screwing up our projects? Part of the problem is replacing human skills with technological tools. That mistake is amplified by a failure to acknowledge human limitations on our ability to interface with technology. If you take the flip side of our skills, you have a road map of those limitations.

Next week I’ll talk about prejudice, indecisiveness, withdrawal and narrow-mindedness. Sounds like a fun crowd, huh? Perhaps not, but I’ll talk about ways to minimize these limitations and maximize the benefits of having analog humans as part of your digital revolution.

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Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and project management consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the email at blglick@charter.net or via telephone at 608/345-3958.

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The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.