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Tracking Expectations to Avoid IT Project Failure

(Abstract from Take Control of Your Project – Using Expectation Alignment to Avoid IT Project Failure by Terry Merriman, PCO Associates LLC)

Whether large or small, IT projects are complex change events. They need cross-functional collaboration between two or more departments or teams. Their success or failure reverberates throughout the organization and often impacts customers. Countless studies and papers on reasons for IT Project Failure cite two critical factors:

  • Poor interpersonal communications
  • Lack of professional project management

Numerous studies have shown that up to 70%  of IT projects fail. Over 20 years, Terry Merriman  and the other IT Project Failurecontributors to the White Paper – Using Expectation Alignment to Avoid IT Project Failure continue to uncover the usual cast of suspects like:

  • Customer requirements not being adequately defined
  • Customer requirements kept changing
  • Acceptance testing was slim to non-existent

These failure statistics are fully in line with the findings of the survey of 1072 business leaders and consultants summarized in my book Focusing Change to Win which I wrote with Kelly Nwosu.

How can that happen with professionals on both sides of the design effort? Weren’t they in the same meetings? What happened to the agreed requirements? testing regimens? and change request process?

Of course, they did all those things. What they didn’t realize is what they believed they understood of each other was at best misaligned. The IT professionals and the business professionals each assumed that the other understood the precise meaning with each communication; each assumed specific activities were part of the other person’s normal routine in a development project. So, projects failed to achieve the desired results due to::

  • Expectations not being made specific to the project or explicit to each other
  • Tasks not done as expected
  • Delivered Functionality did not meet expectations
  • Requirements weren’t met

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Can every project failure be traced to ineffective communication? Of course not!

A second major factor mentioned in many studies on IT project failure is poor project management including:

  • Inadequately defined roles,
  • Passive team management
  • Not holding to hold people accountable
  • Not providing  timely and detailed progress reports to executives.

What’s the common factor between these two failure factors? Misaligned Expectations.

Of course, these failures do not happen overnight. The warning signs are there like:

  • Too many change orders
  • Missed delivery dates
  • Escalating reviews and re-planning

What is often lacking is a tool to diagnose this in advance; one that tells us when the train is about to jump the tracks. Train TracksWe need a tool that can diagnose the health of communication lines most critical to a project’s success; a tool that then also provides a real-time method to open those lines of communication and align the interest of the two parties to their common goal.

Aligning expectations between these groups greatly improves the chances for IT project success. Limited resources mean today’s projects often engage only skeleton teams that are less trained and less experienced. Without a tool to identify these conditions, we have little sign that a project is in danger of failing. Communicating effectively by aligning expectations and reporting on the state of alignment is essential to project success. The alignment process and related reporting provide reliable leading indicators to prevent IT project failure.

So what are the critical success factors of an IT project.

IT Project Critical Success Factors

These activities are critical to the delivery a project – OTIF (On Time and In Full) and have one thing in common they require aligned and therefore effective communication.

When a team uses expectation alignment, its many team and individual relationships are not just agreed but documented and progress monitored.

Four Blocker Stop, Start & Keep DoingThat data becomes the source of information in team progress reports that give leading indicators of potential problem areas before they break the budget, blow the deadline, or fail to meet critical customer requirements. Not only can expectation alignment address many internal aspects of IT Project Management, it can also address the ongoing Organizational Change Management issues on IT projects. When the project identifies its stakeholders it is important to understand the type and frequency of communications they expect from the project team. 

From a different perspective, expectation alignment is a skill. It’s a personal core competency that everyone should cultivate. But, to our knowledge it’s not a skill taught in public education at any level. While general communication skills are part of most K-12 curricula, and communications and media are a part of many college degree programs, we’re not aware of any education system that teaches expectation alignment to document communications and gain the agreements necessary to hurdle the common barriers to effective communication. 

Expectation alignment has a long history of creating success from failure. From implementation of a new customer relationship management system to a new sales strategy that closed over USD $50 million in new business in nineteen weeks, from cutting a project’s contingency fund burn rate from USD $50,000 per day to zero, to bringing a major construction project in on time, within budget, and with no legal challenges, expectation alignment has proved its value. So how is it applied to an IT project?

Go to Applying Expectation Alignment to IT Projects Whitepaper


Effective communication is essential to strong project management and successful implementation of new or upgraded IT applications and infrastructure. The problem is that most people don’t realize their lack of skill or what “effective” really is until they see the gaps and misalignments in expectation alignment data.

Use of expectation alignment provides a leading indicator of where things will fail early enough to take action. 

It does this by isolating communication weak points across crucial areas expectations. Expectation alignment builds a culture of accountability by making everyone’s performance visible. It also reduces assumptions and promotes a clear understanding and acceptance of roles, responsibilities and accountability among all team members. When all team members agree on precisely what they must do and what success will look like they stay focused on those activities relevant to project success; they do not waste time on unnecessary activities, and they do not skip essential activities. IT projects run efficiently and stay on track. The probability of success is greatly improved.

Do you want to end a major underlying cause of IT project failure and gain control of your projects?

Focus on improving team communication using expectation alignment. You’ll find it is well worth the investment.

Got to the White paper to see how

Editorial Board:

Managing Editor: Terry Merriman 

Terry holds a Master of Science degree in Business Administration with a Systems Emphasis and is a former Certified Internal Auditor and Certified Systems Professional. Terry also owns and manages The Performance Suite, an intellectual property holding company that licenses performance improvement solutions including AlEx™ for aligning expectations, CAM™ for competency assessment mapping, and the Deal Mover System™ for complex sales environments; all co-developed with Nick Anderson of The Crispian Advantage. (

Tracy Deschamps B.Mgt, PMP – Principal – TCMG Consulting Services Inc.

A Program and Project Manager with over 16 years proven experience in Information Technology, demonstrating extensive expertise with Enterprise Applications, SAP Application & Technologies, JDE, Primavera, Maximo, Oil and Gas and Pipeline Applications and Generation IT Applications.

R.G. (Rob) Allen

Rob Allen is an outcome-centric executive who specializes in strategy, innovation and business development. He is a former IBM Corporation Executive who draws on 30 years of progressive industry experience.

Rolf Wenzel, Sr. Affiliate, Ian Murray and Company

Rolf’s 30 year career in developing technology and manufacturing companies has focused on the development and tangible implementation of strategy with usable tools. His sector experience includes software, high tech manufacturing, oilfield services, industrial gases and industrial biotechnology.

Nick Anderson, Principal – The Crispian Advantage

Nick’s expertise is developed over 25 years of helping clients to reduce sales costs and improve revenue growth in a “must win economy”. He is passionate about impacting bottom-line results through changing behavior, and is co-author of the book

Focusing Change to Win.



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Using Behavior Analysis to Impact Sales Revenues

How can sales trainers and managers use BA to boost sales?

Observing and assessing what people to say and do in given sales situations is not new. It can have a powerful impact on sales effectiveness when done well. From sales ranging from inside to field sales, from direct to indirect, from simple to complex it is not so much which is the best system but which is most appropriate for the job you need to do. What follows is an overview of the case for BA in improving sales performance.

Why measure what people say or do?

Many of us are unaware of how skilled we are and, more importantly for development purposes, we are very often unaware of exactly how we produced such skilled purposes. We could, of course, ask skilled performers how they have reached their level of ability. Unfortunately, many of their highly skilled performances are by now unconscious with apparently little effort or planning. In fact various research studies of expert performance skills – music, sport, selling has shown such analysis can be really misleading. The prize though is worth it. Moving Your Bell CurveIf we can analyse top performers and are able to develop those skills in others the pay-offs are often double digit sales revenue increases. For example, in my own sales productivity projects, with a range of clients, have produced sales increase ranging from 25% to 100% using a BA based approach.

Clearly, if we want to illuminate why some people are more skilled than others we need to measure what is going on. A crucial factor is to make sure there is a balance between sales outcomes (Lagging Indicators) and the sales behaviors/process used to achieve such results (Leading Indicators). This balance shifts as the complexity and length of the sales increases. It becomes crucial to know how more skilled sales people achieve sales progress, such as:

  • Get invited to bid
  • Gain customer’s agreement to visit a reference site
  • Help the customer develop their RFP

If you are interested in having Nick speak to your organization fill out this form.


 Why bother measuring verbal sales behavior?

The need for measurement is to better understand a situation or event to assess of what is going on. Generally, there is little that can be done well without some form of objective measurement. The better your method, the better you can understand your people’s strengths and weaknesses, the greater the control over the outcomes.

You might be thinking, why can’t experienced sales managers give feedback on their sellers’ performance without gathering detailed BA data. More to the point, how does gathering such data call for the extra effort needed in developing reliable and valid analyses.

The snag is with relying solely on a subjective approach is that observation and interpretation are notoriously difficult to keep apart. This usually leads to sales managers and trainers having a distorted understanding of seller behavior and what really leads to success or failure. Here’s a famous example:

Objection Handling or Prevention – BA Case StudySeeking Information to Persuade

In one study, sales managers reported that their sales people were not good at handling customer objections and pressed the training department to do more objection handling training. After the training, sales managers were still not satisfied. Finally, Neil Rackham persuaded the sales trainers to do a BA project.

What they found surprised them. There were large differences in the number of objections faced by each salesperson. They often found one salesperson having to face 10 times as many objections per selling hour as other people from the same team. Naturally, they drew the obvious conclusion: The people who were receiving so many objections must need re-training in objection handling. They asked Neil’s team for advice.

His team picked the behavior-analysis figures for 10 people who were receiving high numbers of objections and who were clearly candidates for objection-handling training. In all 10 cases, these people were also higher than average in the number of Advantage Statements they used in their calls.

Neil persuaded the company to try a bold experiment. “What I’d like to do,” he explained, “is to train these people in objection prevention. I think we can design a program which doesn’t even mention the word objection but which will do more for these people than the best objection-handling training ever could.”

The company agreed. They chose eight salespeople who had each received an unusually high level of objections from customers. As promised, their training didn’t say anything at all about objections or objection handling. Instead, they taught the eight people to develop Explicit Needs with the SPIN Questioning Model and only then to offer Benefits.

After the training, the company’s researchers went out with the eight to count the number of objections they were now receiving in calls. The average number of objections per selling hour had fallen by 55 percent.

(From: SPIN Selling © 1988 Huthwaite, Inc.)

This is a typical example of sales managers and trainers not separating observation and interpretation that so often leads to faulty conclusions.

Gaining People’s Trust – Case Study

Another classic case study of not separating observation from interpretation was when Linda Marsh and I were engaged in training mortgage loan officers.

The client’s biggest concern was that to meet the spirit of the new law of “knowing the customer” and “act in the best interest” they would have to design a comprehensive software application with over 130 fields for the officers to complete with customer. They concluded that officers would need training to go through the screens A to Z. In the field study the BA data showed something different. We found that those customers interviewed disliked this approach and felt interrogated. More analysis revealed that those mortgage loan officers who customers felt “acted in their best interests” did not follow the A to Z route but rather allowed the customer to talk while the officer moved between screens to complete all the fields. To do this, skilled officers used far more “signposting” of what they had achieved and what else needed to be covered in the interview. The data showed that more structuring behavior led to greater customer satisfaction.

These findings markedly changed both training design and field coaching for the national roll-out of the new training to 6400 mortgage loan officers to be highly successful and led to the client being voted Mortgage Lender of the Year twice by an independent survey of consumers.

What is Behavior Analysis?

Behavior analysis is a method of putting things that people say into categories. Exactly what the categories are depends to a large extent on what is to be measured. The categories can be very simple such as, ‘Asking questions’ or ‘Giving information’. The categories could be more complex such as the categories used to analyze negotiation behavior. Whatever the chosen category it must, if it is to be a useful, meet six basic criteria:

  • Make sense at a common sense level.
  • Different from other categories – no overlap
  • Measurable
  • Accurately recognize it when it occurs with a high level of reliability.
  • People can vary how often they use it.
  • Related to effective performance.

Overall, it should be something that can be easily shown to have some an effect on other people for better or worse.

If you look at the category of ‘Asking Questions’ it should be clear that it meets all five criteria and hence it seems to be a good candidate for use as an analysis category.

Having chosen the categories they can be used to observe sales people and customers interacting. It is then possible to find out which interactions were successful and which were not. is then possible to identify which categories of verbal behavior are success related and which are not.

Once the behaviors are identified it is important to develop the right skills if the training is to be fully effective. Training’s the cost effectiveness is related to both the speed of the training and the trainees’ subsequent effectiveness. This makes it even more important that the right skills and behaviors are developed right from the start.

Behavior analysis provides an excellent method for observing and identifying the factors that are crucial to success in these situations.

How does BA help sales managers and trainers?

Developing Sales Skills Using BAWe found that people can be trained in a few days to observe sales people far more objectively. The training and the method of observation dictate that observers must separate their observation from interpretation of their data before they can draw conclusions.

The great thing about doing BA is that it forces observers to simply observe. Plus it provides a more objective record of a sales person’s behavior that enables better decisions to be made in training, performance assessment and talent management.. This data is also very useful for the learner to analyse their own behavior and be coached to draw their own conclusions which is often far more acceptable

By observing live situations and using various research techniques, including B.A., it has been possible to identify the success model used by effective negotiators and sellers as well as managers who must run meetings, appraise and persuade. In this sense B.A. is a key part of performance improvement.

Where can I learn more to help my sales team’s performance?

BA processes can be used at different levels of detail and thoroughness depending on your needs. An easy way to start is providing recordings of those sales situations which you need analyzing. Another option is engaging us to train a group of your people to develop and use a BA instrument for you to capture sales interactions so that they are reliable and accurate.

If you are interested in having Nick speak to your organization fill out this form.