BI Success – Does the tail wag the dog?

I am watching recorded event this morning about the keys to Business Intelligence success. The top 4 points that were provided are;

  1. Finding the right (executive sponsor)
  2. Don’t build what they ask for, build what they need
  3. Offer up a buffet (deliver multiple options)
  4. Don’t try to boil the ocean.

Lets be honest, there’s nothing new here – having the right sponsor has been listed as a critical success factor numerous times. So, to paraphrase, the presentation was basically talking about finding the correct person and delivering something that truly works for the business in an incremental approach. Why incremental? Well, I guess, (if I have my skeptics hat on) I’d suggest its better to fail fast with small outcomes so the risk adverse manager doesn’t get tagged with a failed project. On the positive note, it better aligns the business outcomes with whats delivered, reduces inertia to adoption and maintains focus on outcomes (from both the business and those delivering).

What raised my eyebrows was the first choice, finding the right sponsor. This is so important that, without doubt, I’d suggest that any rouge project would eventually be killed if it doesn’t have the right ‘executive’ support (if you don’t think so tell me otherwise). I’ve delivered remarkable shadow IT projects that were canned and aggressively removed by IT departments. For example, I’ve had the business users refuse to use the corporate system and ask IT to build systems that work like the existing one (that was built by my team).

Before you suggest that there is some valid reason why this needs to happen let me assure you there’s not. Some common arguments include statements like its not valid because it lacks IT structure, backups, testing, validation and so on. They did so there’s no technical reason why the tool’s have been killed. So I reflect on the first point that was raised in the webinar – executive sponsorship.

Now to the main point of this post, why is executive sponsorship so important? Some common arguments are that it ensures appropriate resources and organizational focus however, I cant help wondering if these are recursive justifications – somewhat aligned to the chicken and the egg, its hard to truly figure out which comes first. Is there some strategic and leadership focus here or does it reflect more about the structure of organizations?

Could the requirement for executive support be an indication of organizational compliance rather than effective management? For example, if executive John Bloggs is behind the project no one dares speak up against its short comings and so it can’t be a failure.  So, we’ll change the definition of success (scope or cost) because it appeases John Bloggs expectations and influence.

I know that there are cases where focused executives have played an active role in delivery and provided a positive impact to projects but I cant help feeling that, sometimes, the tail is wagging the dog.

Now for the ultra positive and the additional factor which I cant help thinking what comes first.  I’ve been lucky enough to work in a variety of organizations and have seen a lot of different management styles.  However, from the organizational point of view, does it not say something about the organization (and the type of people who work there) when executives actively back the project?  I am sure that something people feel passionate about and work towards will be successful, so is it not the organization rather that the politics that drives success?  That is, if executives are willing to get support the project (rather than treat it like a political football), because that’s the type of people they are, then how can it not be a success?

What are your experiences?