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The Post Office Horizon scandal: embracing accountability in IT Project Management – why there is an I in fail

Accountability in IT Systems and Projects is a hot topic right now. You don’t have to dive too deep into the story recently told by ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office before you ask yourself, “Who knew what and when” about the IT system at the centre of the scandal. 

This blog, while perhaps inspired by, is not about the Horizon scandal per se – but we can all learn from it. This post is more about the importance of accountability, taking ownership of those moments when something is not right and embracing a “for the greater good” culture. 

NEVER WALK PAST SOMETHING THAT MIGHT TRIP UP THE REST OF US     

In IT Project Management, and IT in general, where innovation, the bravery to push through boundaries and the need for efficiency are becoming increasing vital, acknowledging, and rectifying mistakes is a more valuable constituent of success than ever.  

“NEVER WALK PAST SOMETHING THAT MIGHT TRIP UP THE REST OF US” is the caption on a poster I once saw in a workplace, and I think it’s a neat line! It’s the responsibility of everyone to, not only be vigilant to mistakes (whether their own or those of others), but also be diligent in surfacing them so that they may be solved.      

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” as the philosopher John McClane said in Die Hard. The original quote is often attributed (albeit misquoted) to Eldridge Cleaver whose correct (full) quote is perhaps even more stark: ‘There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.’ 

In IT Project Management I think we can add: “If you don’t flag up a problem – you are the problem!!”  

IF YOU DON’T FLAG UP A PROBLEM – YOU ARE THE PROBLEM 

This feels like preaching to the choir, for most Project Managers it is second nature, but in life in general there appears to be a creeping culture of covering one’s own back, at the expense of the wider mission and collective – be that a team, a business, or even a country. You can speculate yourself from where this mind set is emanating but in the sphere of IT Project Management, I think it’s important that we grab hold of the nettle before it spreads, and we get properly stung!     

Despite our trademark meticulous planning and execution, errors can occur, it is how they are handled can significantly impact the success of the project.  

In this blog we’ll explore the importance of owning up to mistakes in IT Project Management, why we should take ownership of the solution and shine a light on the positive outcomes that arise from a culture of accountability. 

IT projects are complex, with seemingly endless moving parts and intricate components, from technology and software to human resources to tight timelines, challenges are inevitable. How these challenges are addressed is where the magic lies. When mistakes occur, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation of blame-shifting or attempting to conceal errors, but usually this just exacerbates the original issue and always hinders project progress. 

1 – SAVE TIME WASTED LOOKING FOR THE PROBLEM 

Darren works in financial IT Project Management and tells the story of how whistleblowing was incentivised after a problem took his team the best part of three days to diagnose, costing exponentially more than had the individual who made the mistake come clean at the outset.  

The colleague was worried that his error might lead to disciplinary action or might get him sacked so he stayed quiet. Actually, the problem was escalated by his silence and so the trouble he was in increased! He was disciplined, but during this process Darren’s team realised that the high-stakes nature of the business had led to a culture of workplace bullying where people were taking what they thought was the path of least resistance and keeping their heads down, rather than risk a verbal lashing!  

Whistleblowers were incentivised – you can actually get a bonus for flagging up a mistake now – even if it’s your mistake. As Darren says, “Better investing a hundred quid in rewarding openness and integrity than losing tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of pounds. Not to mention the risk to the organisation’s credibility.”    

Which brings us nicely to: 

2 – BUILD TRUST AND CREDIBILITY: 

One of the primary reasons for embracing accountability in IT project management is the establishment and maintenance of trust and credibility.  

When team members and stakeholders witness a transparent acknowledgment of mistakes, it fosters an environment of openness and honesty. This transparency, in turn, builds trust among team members and further instils confidence in stakeholders.  

It’s like a wheel that spins itself, creating a positive project culture. 

3 – CREATES A SPACE FOR LEARNING AND CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT 

Owning up to mistakes is not just about admitting fault and sorting the challenge at hand; it’s a VIP lane gateway to continuous improvement.  

Every mistake, misstep and error presents an opportunity for learning and growth. By not flagging them you deprive yourself and your team of this valuable chance to grow. 

By dissecting mistakes, identifying and understanding their root causes, and implementing corrective measures, IT project managers and their teams can grow their skills and knowledge and develop evidence-based plans for future challenges. Moreover, a commitment to learn from mistakes actively reduces the chance that similar mistakes recur, contributing to the success of future projects. 

4 – RISK MITIGATION AND CONTINGENCY PLANNING: 

It’s like a muscle, the more you flex it the stronger it becomes! Unexpected challenges can lie around every corner in IT Project Management so the ability to promptly identify and address mistakes is crucial.  

When we own up to errors, as project managers hardwire effective risk mitigation strategies and contingency plans into our toolset. A proactive approach enables teams to navigate challenges swiftly, minimizing the impact on project timelines and deliverables, and contributing to return on investment. 

5 – TEAM COLLABORATION AND MORALE 

It’s interesting, referring to Darren’s experience from earlier, how expectation and reality can differ for those facing the choice between owning up to or burying a mistake. It probably goes back to punitive precedents like detentions at school or groundings at home. The young PM who prompted a change of paradigm in Darren’s workplace was expecting the mother of all telling offs. 

The reality is that, in most cases, rather than a disciplinary, the whistleblower receives praise. 

Creating a culture of accountability in IT project management has positive implications for team collaboration and morale. When individuals feel secure in admitting mistakes without fear of retribution, it creates a collaborative atmosphere. Team members are more likely to share insights and experiences, collectively working towards project success.  

The absence of a blame culture contributes to higher morale, as team members feel supported rather than castigated and penalised for their errors. 

6 – CLIENT AND STAKEHOLDER COMMUNICATION 

Honesty and transparency in addressing mistakes will improve the dynamic of your team but it can extend way beyond the internal crew and boost stakeholders and client trust.  

Stakeholders and clients hate nasty surprises and, in the main, appreciate a forthright approach.  

“I’d rather have 100% of the bad news than 50% bad news and 50% spin” a client once told me at a first meeting (although I’ve pasted in the word spin instead of the slightly more agricultural and blunt one that he used!!) Clients and stakeholders are more likely to trust a project manager who takes responsibility for their errors and posits a solution. Clear, honest, factual and open communication about mistakes, together with the steps being taken to rectify them, strengthens the relationship between the project team and stakeholders, this is how long-term partnerships are born! 

7 – PEACE OF MIND 

Have you ever properly messed something up at work? Or in a relationship? How did you feel in the time between making the mistake and it coming to light? Pretty lousy, I bet. The longer that takes, the harder it gets. 

In IT Project Management you have the added guilt of seeing colleagues trying to identify the mistake that you can point straight to.  

In our game, confession isn’t just good for the soul – it’s good for all souls!  

In conclusion, owning up to IT Project Management mistakes needs to not be seen as a sign of weakness but a strength and a commitment to excellence.  

If you’ve under-resourced your IT Project – flag it up and draft in the talent you need from the Project Management as a Service universe. If you’ve messed up – fess up and learn to have a self-deprecating sense of humour about (where appropriate). If you find yourself out of your depth – be open about it, upskilling and training will make you and your team stronger. If a team upstream is dependent upon your team’s delayed output – tell them as soon as you realise there is a hold up. 

I just realised, in that last paragraph essentially listing a bunch of potential mistakes and challenges, I inadvertently typed the word “up” about six times! That’s a sign! There is an up-side to fouling up, but you only access it by admitting your mistake! The Only Way Is Up, as Yazz once sang! (That’s four more “ups” and you’re showing your age – Ed).   

By embracing accountability, project managers pave the way for trust, continuous improvement, risk mitigation, team collaboration, and positive stakeholder relationships. Being the “I” in ‘fail’ is a characteristic of a successful PM and the hallmark of a mature IT project management enterprise.  

Can something that leads to greater project success and the growth and development of individuals and teams involved, truly be a fail at all.  

 

 

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