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The Olympics and IT transformation projects

by Mark P. McDonald  |  August 10, 2012  |  2 Comments

A cycle of investment, training and hard work completes every four years as the world comes together at the Olympic games.  It is just about the same amount of time that it takes the average large scale IT project to go from start to finish.  The two have a lot in common, more than you would think.

Now I am not slagging the Olympic games.  The London games have captured everything that could be expected from a world-class event.  Congratulations to Gerry Pennell the London 2012 CIO and his team in London – a job well done.

The similarities between the two came to mind as I was reflecting on the Games.  Besides it will be at least two years and possibly four before I can reuse this post – an eternity in the blogosphere.  Just kidding.

This year’s London Olympics is similar to a large IT transformation project by that I mean a big, multi country ERP upgrade/deployment, CRM implementation etc.  You know the projects that last multiple years, consume the attention of management and generally go off with a big bang.

Both are large and complex projects involving people, process, facilities, information and technology.  While the absolute scale is not the same, nor the particular time pressure, many of the same disciplines apply to both.  Each is a program/project management masterpiece in terms of scale, visibility and criticality.

Both are transformational to their respective enterprises, particularly in the short term.  London and the UK will not be the same for a while after 2012 between the Queen’s Jubilee, the royal wedding and the Olympics.  Likewise organizations are never the same after a large transformational IT project, so the change and impact are real. Over time both seem to fade both for the host city and the enterprise.   This year I visited Seoul, Barcelona, Sydney and Atlanta and you have to look to see that the games were held in these cities.

The hype is tremendous, the expectations and benefits growing in proportion and response to the size of the investment with the benefits realized to be a different matter.  Consider the revelation that retailers in London, particularly the west end, are losing business during the Olympics rather than generating the economic lift that has been expected.

Not everyone you expect shows up.  In London, the ticketing scheme was the subject of some debate.  In an IT project not everyone invited attends creating empty hours in the project plan where the business is expected to contribute to the project teams and participate in the projects.

Requirements are difficult to understand. London 2012 logo, which I cannot show in the post, is an example.  The logo is open to interpretation, reconfiguration and just plain bewilderment.   The same often goes for the requirements associated with large IT transformation projects.   Everyone has an idea, an opinion, or a belief and all of them are partially correct.

People are human. Business people and Badminton players try to circumvent the rules and game the system.  Others challenge the competence of officials and IT professionals . Thinking of the Fencing competition where the assumption was that measuring things in full seconds was sufficient.  The ‘compensation’ for the fencer victimized by the officiating – a special “good sport” metal rather than a guaranteed silver metal.  It sounds like the pat on the back someone gets for ‘taking one of the team’ on a big IT project.

Everyone is watching and everyone is a critic.  Both of the Olympics and of large scale IT projects. People keep score about everything, even though officially it’s not about keeping score.  The medal count is an artificial creation of the media.  The Olympic Committee does not keep a medal count per se as it is counter to the goals of the Olympic spirit.  Likewise, the winners and losers on a big IT project.

Finally, both draw to a close often with a flurry of activity, a final closing ceremony and a collective look to the future.  This will happen soon in London and people will look forward to Rio in four years time in the same way that those completing a big IT project can imagine when it will happen again.  There is a little Olympian in all of us.

Thanks London, for being a superior host and bringing the world a terrific Games.

Thanks to all of you, the day-to-day technology Olympians who should also take a bow and be recognized for making technology faster, reach higher and deliver stronger results.

“Citius, Altius, Fortius” or as my spell checker wants to say “Citrus, Atlas, Forties” to all!

What can you say its technology.

Category: fun  personal-observation  

Tags: personal-musing  personal-observation  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The Olympics and IT transformation projects

  1. Mark,

    thanks a lot for this post and showing the analogies between the Olympics and big IT transformation projects. From a CIO perspective another parallel can be added: just like athletes in combined events, CIOs have to be top performers in multiple disciplines.

    What makes this pentathlon an even greater challenge is that everything is happening at the same time – but the good news is that unlike in sports, the CIO does not run alone but with a team of people. And their collaboration is key to success: if all do some of the work, it makes the task much easier.

    So here are the disciplines I think any CIO needs to compete in … with the right equipment, of course: talking business, mastering complexity, managing change, handling finances and of course mitigating risks.

  2. Mark P. McDonald says:


    Thanks for building on this observation as you are right IT is often asked to compete in multiple disciplines in their work. So its more like if every event was going on in the same place involving the entire national team.

    Thanks for a list of these disciplines.

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