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Avoiding Overly Ambitious Cloud Projects

Updated: May 16, 2022

Flying Too Close to the Sun.

Icarus was a mythical Greek figure who was imprisoned and tried to escape using wings made from wax and feathers. Icarus’ father warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun for fear that his wings would melt. Regrettably, with his overly ambitions desire to fly and escape imprisonment, Icarus flew much too high, the sun melted the wax on his wings and Icarus plunged to his death.

The story of Icarus is often used to highlight the dangers of unbridled ambition.

IT projects can sometimes suffer from the Icarus Syndrome. Trying to escape the imprisonment of legacy systems, on-premises environments, and the cost of owned equipment, cloud computing can seem like the wings to freedom. The mistake IT professionals often make is to ambitiously load too much into the project and to be overly confident of the benefits the project will yield.

A certain amount of ambition is often a winning characteristic of successful IT teams. The desire to “think big” is the rally cry of many senior executives and successful entrepreneurs.

At the same time, team leaders and team members who are overly ambitious, often due to boundless optimism, can experience project failures, especially when the team fails to properly assess its own capabilities.

It is for these reasons that we are seeing human vulnerabilities becoming a much more significant cause of IT project failure. The actions of project managers, business analysts and/or cloud/IT professionals can have a much more profound impact on project outcomes than technology capabilities or even unexpected events.

Overeating is bad for you.

Everyone has a certain digestive capacity. Exceeding that capacity is generally bad for one’s health. In the same vein, an organization has a capacity to digest projects.

Believing that your organization’s digestive capacity is higher that it is has led many an organization to “bite off more than they could chew.” An overly optimistic belief in an organizations digestive capacity does not only relate to individual task but also to the sheer and cumulative volume of activities.

Many times, individual tasks seem achievable but the culmination of all the tasks in a project (or team) are overwhelming. In sales, we are often taught to “under promise and overdeliver” as the key to success and customer satisfaction. In all too many IT projects it seems like the reverse is the unintended outcome.

Benefits are overpromised and results are underwhelming.

There are things I know for sure and there are things I know for sure I don’t know.

Another potential pitfall to ambition is to think you or your team have all the answers or can figure anything out yourself without help. Overconfident in the team’s capabilities and/or expertise in any given area can have similar adverse effects to overestimating the team’s digestive capacity.

The skills necessary to operate a stable environment are different than the skills needed to migrate from one operating environment (the status quo) to a new environment (the cloud). A solid assessment of the team’s strengths and weaknesses given a project’s scope is critical to success. Often, a third party’s assessment is helpful to avoid blind spots or overly exuberant estimations of capabilities.

In many respects, a team is a like a toolkit. You need to select the right tools for the job and if you do not have a necessary tool in your kit, you may need to go out and get it.

Plan for the best, be prepared for the worst.

In a Harvard Business Review article “Why Your IT Project May Be Riskier Than You Think”

Authors Bent Flyvbjerg and Alexander Budzier state that “any company that is contemplating a large technology project should take a stress test designed to assess its readiness… is the company strong enough to absorb the hit if its biggest technology project goes over budget by 400% or more and if only 25% to 50% of the projected benefits are realized?

While these potential outcomes might seem “comfortably improbable”, the author’s research demonstrated that those exact outcomes occurred with “uncomfortable frequency.”

All too often, cloud projects pursue a cloud-first or cloud-only approach. The cloud is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The needs of the business change almost as fast as technology changes. The change associated with the combination of the two if often exponential. As a result, IT plans needs to build in as much flexibility as is conceivable and possible.

Notwithstanding, and despite our best efforts, the path to success can be fraught with mistakes and missteps. Some projects may struggle to meet expectations while others will fail altogether. The best teams will recognize such risks and incorporate those factors into their team and project assessments and planning.

In addition, plans should include provisions for repatriation or migration of IT workloads either back to on premises or to other providers. This is the IT project equivalent to negotiating a divorce during the honeymoon.

However uncomfortable it might seem at the time, there is likely no better time.

The challenges associated with overly ambitious projects can have adverse follow-on effects as well. According to Sean Maskell, President of Cologix Canada, “As a colocation services provider, Cologix is regularly approached by clients with highly ambitious projects. Since we are generally in competition for the client’s assignment, we will always try to deliver what the client is asking for.

From our experience, projects where the client team underestimates the skills necessary to assess opportunities, develop a viable roadmap to cloud environments and/or to revector legacy applications can be challenged from the start.

This can invariably lead to situations where the client’s project is plagued with delays, and they end up procuring and provisioning capability and services that lie ideal for long periods of time.”

You must learn from other people’s mistakes because you cannot live long enough to make them all yourself.

IT projects are run by people, not computers (at least for now). As such, the project team will tend to bring their own perspectives, biases and opinions to the project. The term “Tunnel Vision” refers to the tendency for individuals to magnify facts and opinions that appeal to us and de-emphasize or ignore facts that do we do not inheritably agree with.

This can present a non-trivial risk to an IT project with the team underestimating the risk and effort required, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The best project leaders are cognizant of these factors and make provisions to help mitigate their negative effects. Project team members need to establish an environment where being brutally honest and candid is not only an acceptable practice in the group – it is expected.

Decisions should be fact based where possible to minimize the influence of our various biases. The team should also seek the input from parties outside of the project team, especially those who have undertaken similar projects or faced similar challenges.

There is no monopoly on good ideas and best practices, and it is always best to learn from other’s experiences.

Why didn’t you tell me that?

Communication and collaboration drive innovation. Business leaders and IT professionals must facilitate such contacts and work diligently to avoid silos or fiefdoms that can impede the flow of ideas and innovation. A lack of communication can also lead to mistakes and oversights, duplication of effort and other wastes of team time and talent.

At this stage, the team should identify and map any stakeholders who’s input and/or approval is required which might include project-appropriate third-party consultants. Executives sometimes try to limit stakeholder engagement to reduce the amount of staff time involved in various projects. The challenge is that positive outcomes and stakeholder engagement are positively correlated.

There is a balance point here.

Engaging a broad audience in the communication process can drive better outcomes however, the organization needs to carefully determine which stakeholders will bring the most value and how they fit into the process. Furthermore, the process can be streamlined by differentiating between those stakeholders who will have “a say” versus those that might have a “vote”.

Staying far enough away from the sun.

Cloud projects, indeed, all projects, need to be bold and have the right amount of ambition. Careful reflection on setting the scope of the project, estimating the capabilities and digestive capacity of the team and organization and planning to avoid tunnel vision help organizations to fly close to the sun without getting burnt.

Soar like an eagle – not Icarus.

The Cushman & Wakefield’s Global Data Center Advisory Group has worked with Hyperscalers, Cloud Service Providers and Enterprise Customers to assist them with finding new Data Center facilities and/or to dispose of surplus facilities. For organizations of all sizes, we have specialized expertise in identifying, negotiating and securing colocation facilities and working collaboratively with IT professionals to assist in various cloud projects.

For more information on how Cushman & Wakefield’s can assist you with you Data Center needs please contact us.

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