Research has shown that more than half of IT projects fail.1 Such failure inevitably represents financial waste. Something undesirable at the best of times, least of all when operating within markets that are fraught with difficulty.
This presents leadership with a catch-22 scenario: Ceasing technological investment will – in theory, at least – prevent fiscal waste. Technology, though, is intertwined with day-to-day operations to such an extent that its neglect is certain to negatively impact performance. Moreover, organisations that fail to review and improve their technology portfolios are likely to find themselves outperformed by those that do. Now is not the time to stop investing in technology. Instead, leaders should develop robust frameworks that serve to align projects with organisational goals as well as determine the practicability of implementation and likely benefits.
Integral to these frameworks will be the creation of methodologies that allow decision-makers to effectively evaluate whether complex implementation is outweighed by a project’s potential outcome. Typically, a project deemed to be difficult to implement is one that is likely to be disregarded and such a suggestion may seem unusual as a result. Some projects, though, can be classed as ‘moonshots’ and, whilst implementing these may prove difficult, they should still be considered by virtue of their transformative capacity.
What is a moonshot?
The term ‘moonshot’ was first used in reference to NASA’s Apollo 11 project. Today, it is used to describe highly-ambitious projects or undertakings that are likely to prove difficult to realise but are also capable of delivering tremendous benefits. Often, organisations shy away from such ventures, deeming them precarious. Whilst teaming ambition with realistic outlooks is an understandable and often commendable approach, a culture of risk aversion is not conducive to progress and innovation. Such cultures are also commonplace, as pointed out in the Harvard Business Review:
“…executives in large corporations are reluctant to propose and advocate for risky projects. They quash new ideas in favor (sic) of marginal improvements, cost-cutting, and ‘safe’ investments… A risk-neutral manager [in a cited survey] would be willing to accept a 75% chance of loss and a 25% chance of gain; one-quarter of $400 million is $100 million, which is the initial investment, so a 25% chance of gain creates a risk-neutral value of zero. Most of the surveyed managers, however, demonstrated extreme loss aversion.2
Risk-averse attitudes are certain to adversely affect the way a ‘moonshot’ project is perceived. Tech-centric ventures’ tendencies to overspend and underdeliver help to galvanise these negative views. Completely discounting the validity of ambitious ventures is, however, likely to be detrimental to long-term performance.
Why moonshots matters
Ambition and innovation are behind not just businesses’ greatest achievements, but society’s, too. For proof, one needs to look no further than the aforementioned project from which ‘moonshot’ is derived. The same is true of the creation of the National Health Service, DNA sequencing and the development of fibre-optic infrastructure. All were tremendously difficult to realise, required incredible determination and perseverance, and all – and I make no apologies for the use of cliché in this instance – changed the world.
Whilst ‘moonshot’ and innovation have distinct meanings and are not interchangeable, any project worthy of the former is certain to belong to the latter. The same is not true in reverse: change can be innovative in that it is new to an organisation, but an innovative project is not necessarily characterised by a problematic implementation. Nevertheless, an organisation that is dedicated to innovation is far more likely to dispassionately consider a ‘moonshot’ rather than dismiss the project out of hand. Whilst technology, the primary driver of innovation, continues to advance, however, fewer UK-based businesses are looking to leverage change for their benefit.
The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s 2019 UK Innovation Survey, published in July 2020, revealed that 38% of organisations were ‘innovation active’ in 2016-18. This represented the lowest percentage since 37% in 2008-10.3 A willingness to take risks, it would seem, is already in decline.
Wary of stagnation and the prospect of senior leadership growing unwilling to take chances, Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, created a subsidiary, Google X, in 2010. The organisation, which was later simply renamed X following a top-down restructure, describes itself as a ‘moonshot factory’ and is involved in the development of self-driving cars, AI systems, biotech and considerably more. Whilst any project focused on such tech would certainly be classed as a moonshot at all organisations, it is important to note that undertakings that fit such descriptions will differ from one organisation to the next.
Both developing and implementing digital transformation strategies is a daunting prospect, even for IT and other technology support service professionals. Technology is now so ubiquitous – its potential uses so wide-ranging and diverse – that macro experts no longer exist. Instead, experts specialise in areas such as virtualised infrastructure, artificial intelligence, process automation, API integration, etc. In turn, when the expertise needed to implement a project are not present in-house, a prospective project requiring them is automatically classed as a ‘moonshot’. With the required expertise often accessible, however, such classifications are inaccurate. Before concluding an idea is impracticable, organisations should ensure that they cannot access individuals with the knowledge they require.
The ever-increasing potential afforded by different forms of tech has given birth to firms of technology management consultants. These organisations’ models are dependent on maintaining the knowledge needed to take advantage of the technology. They can, as a result, make impracticable IT projects eminently achievable.
Additionally, technology that could previously only be accessed by large corporations is now widely available. Various digital provisions can now be used on an ‘as a service’ basis and resources needed to realise ambitious projects can now be accessed affordably.
In short, decision-makers should not assume that a proposed project should be classed as a ‘moonshot’ without due consideration. Comprehensively determining what knowledge and elements are required, as well as potential means of accessing them can reframe even the most unviable of plans.
Minimising moonshot risks
No IT project is entirely devoid of risk. Technology changes with such frequency that even those that have been meticulously planned can become less effective within a short space of time. Careful consideration, though, can result in the prioritisation of alterations to infrastructure that not only enable project fulfilment but also broader organisational improvements.
Enhancing existing data networks is typically key to projects that require organisations to use virtual services such as the Cloud or software as a service (SaaS). More robust networks also deliver greater productivity by reducing downtime and allowing employees to access online resources more expeditiously. Cyber security measures may also need to be made more robust, and doing so will improve internal resources’ response times. Moving software portfolios online can bring about considerable savings whilst simultaneously enabling digital working practices. Offsetting risk by developing tech that will also help you improve day-to-day operations is a potent means of minimising the risk associated with ambitious projects.
Implementing an ambitious project is likely to present considerable challenges. This, however, does not mean that it should be classed as a ‘moonshot’ or that the project cannot be realised. Often, prospective projects are rejected without due consideration and opportunities are missed. Before dismissing ideas as impracticable, decision-makers should consider a number of factors. In particular, they should consider what external support is available to their organisation. Doing so often leads decision-makers to conclude that what they had originally classed as ‘moonshots’ are actually far more viable than they first suspected.
Finally, in the event that an idea can be classed as a ‘moonshot’, leaders need to be mindful of their aversion to risk. A project that is difficult to realise but capable of delivering considerable improvement is worth consideration. Instead of rejecting complex ideas, stakeholders need to adjust their approach. Projects with high potential should be subject to more rigorous analysis, costings, etc. and comprehensive implementation plans should be created for them. Such analyses will aid the determination of which projects are worthy of risk and those that are not.
ROCK’s IT project management services help organisations successfully implement technological change. We minimise the risk associated with large-scale IT projects, providing our clients with technological expertise and partnership. Contact ROCK to find out more about our implementation services today.