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Avoiding project failure : Don’t get caught by “The Solution Illusion”

In tough economic times, it’s essential that organisations spend their money in ways that will deliver tangible and measurable benefits.  Few would argue with  this statement, yet many organisations fall into a trap I call “The Solution Illusion”. This trap is most prevalent when organisations are deciding where to allocate their hard fought budget.

Thumbs Down SymbolThe Solution Illusion occurs when organisations buy into some kind of solution (perhaps an IT system, or an outsourcing contract) without fully understanding the problem or business need that they are trying to address.  Without a thorough understanding of the problem domain, it’s almost impossible to maximise the potential benefits. This leads to projects and initiatives that get cancelled, and projects that don’t deliver the expected benefits.  In a worst-case scenario, an organization may end up implementing an expensive solution or IT system that is far more complex than it needs, yet still does not resolve the organizations issues.

The Solution Illusion often results in people and organisations assuming that because something is expensive, enticing and “en vogue” that it must be an improvement that will solve just about any conceivable problem.


The (alleged) £7 Billion Turkey

There are many real-life examples of The Solution Illusion occurring in organisations large and small.   Take the well-publicised example of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) IT Care Record project, which was initiated to provide nationwide electronic access to patient records.  A National Audit Office (NAO) report from May 2011 implies that the original project had not taken adequate consideration of the local business requirements/capacity, and talks about additional customisation being required and disagreement with suppliers over substantial “new requirements” during the project.

A likely cause of this situation is that the problem domain was not fully understood at the outset, leading to misunderstandings about what functionality would be delivered.  Could this be a real-world example of The Solution Illusion in practice?  Either way, the resulting report makes a sobering read:


“….we conclude that the £2.7 billion spent on care records systems so far does not represent value for money, and we do not find grounds for confidence that the remaining planned spend of £4.3 billion will be different.”[1]


At the time of writing, an official statement has been made confirming that the programme will be dismantled as “it is not fit to provide the modern IT services that the NHS needs.” [2]


Avoiding The Solution Illusion

As management and business change professionals, it’s important that we take the opportunity to step back, understand and define the problem domain, long before we examine potential solutions.  We need to work collaboratively to avoid knee-jerk reactions that don’t actually address the underlying business need.  And sometimes we must slow down and reflect, before we speed up to deliver.

This is one area where the tools and techniques from the world of Business Analysis can add a huge amount of value.  These tools will help us understand the problem in terms of the process, people and organization. In many cases, we can get from ‘alleged’ solution to ‘actual’ problem by asking a series of questions.  In some cases, it could be as simple as asking “why” several times until the underlying business need is elicited.  In more complex cases, it might be necessary to employ more rigorous and structured techniques.

However you proceed, asking robust, challenging and analytical questions up front help the project team to understand the business value and customer value that is required.  This measure of business and customer value should be used throughout the project to guide scope.  It informs the business case and ensures that everyone (From the Project Team, to the End User, to the Sponsor) understands the problem that is being solved. And once the business value and the business benefits of the project are understood, it is much easier to build a compelling business case.

Projects and initiatives that fall for The Solution Illusion have a higher risk of failure.  They might well deliver on time, and on budget, but if the problem was never understood, what are the odds of it being solved?



[1]From ‘The National Programme for IT in the NHS: an update on the delivery of detailed care records systems’ 18 May 2011. National Audit Office Copyright, UK Stationery Office.


[2] From ‘Dismantling the NHS National Programme for IT’, UK Department of Health    22 Sep 2011