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Geertjan's Blog

  • October 26, 2014

"Why we're bad at delivering on commitments"

Geertjan Wielenga
Product Manager
In the Netherlands, over many years, big IT projects, e.g., for government employment projects such as werk.nl and uwv.nl, public transportation projects such as the new chip-based ticketing system, and healthcare projects, etc etc, fail in delivering on time (usually many years too late) and within budget (typically hundreds of millions over budget). It's got so bad that an investigative parliamentary commission under parliamentarian Ton Elias was recently established to pin down the reasons for these failures, to make recommendations, etc. (One of his interesting yet unsurprising findings is that, while being driven by 'thinking outside the box', creative impulses, and a desire to 'make a difference', the political establishment doesn't know much about the complexities involved in IT solutions, which tend to take far longer to implement than their brief term of office.) In this weekend's NRC newspaper, columnist Ben Tiggelaar discusses, under the heading "Why we're bad at delivering on commitments", the reasons behind these repetitive failures and below is my translation of his column since I think it's very interesting and deserves a bigger audience.

Do expensive IT-consultants working on government projects really not know how to prevent million euro projects from failing so disastrously? And do the accountants simply not understand how to avoid finding themselves in embarrassing articles in the papers over and over again? Or do they know but do they fail to act upon the knowledge they have? The pattern is often the same. Someone makes a stupid mistake. We figure out who did it and what went wrong. After that we reaffirm how it should have been done. And then we agree that from this point onwards, that's how we'll do it. Among others, this is how the parliamentary IT-commission under Ton Elias has recently done its job.

Where's the critical mistake here? In the idea that when you know something or when you agree to do something, that this will lead to different behavior. Would that it were this simple! Decades of research has shown that there is a big gap between wanting and knowing, on one hand, and acting on the other. Behavior is the weak link between plans and results.

Six important causes.

1. Situations. In one situation, e.g., in an investigative parliamentary commission, our words and behavior are automatically driven by specific and local social stimuli. In another situation, e.g., when discussing a new prestigious project, our behavior is influenced by completely different stimuli. For example, in the first situation, critical commentary is rewarded. In the second, it's not.

2. Knowledge. Today you come up with a nice resolution, a week later you're confronted with new knowledge. For example, about yourself: it turns out you're less fast, less able, or less smart than you thought. And, as a consequence, you adapt your resolution. Or you decide not to pursue it after all.

3. Postponement. Resolutions that are not clear, or not important enough to us personally, normally lead to postponement. And after that, one of the other factors in this list take over.

4. Forgetting. People resolve to do things on a daily basis all the time, but often forget all about it just as quickly.

5. Hypothetical framing. Resolutions are typically about future behavior that, in the present, is imagined. Anyone would sign up for hypothetical behavior in the future. However, research shows that choices around behavior that should be implemented immediately cause a sharp drop in the desire to act.

6. Satisfaction. When people formulate smart decisions for the future, they feel satisfied in the here-and-now. We feel that we're "on our way". And that increases the likelihood that you won't follow through on your commitment.

Supervisory bodies, checklists, codes of behavior... They all work, a bit. But effective action remains difficult for those who do not know, or who underestimate, the gap between intention and behavior.

Within government, the IT delivery problems will not end. And the derailed accountants will again be written about in newspapers, soon. At most, we'll be even more concerned in asking ourselves how it could all have gone so badly wrong.

And that will have been at least partly my own fault. He who writes columns about management and leadership should actually focus on these problems every week. Actually, I was planning to do that. Honestly. But last time I decided to do that, I've discovered, was almost two years ago. My apologies. I promise to do better next time.

Ben Tiggelaar is a behavioral researcher, trainer, and publicist, who writes weekly columns about management and leadership.

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