It appears that systems engineering projects fail more often than not. According to the academic literature, about 50%-80% of the big projects are reported as unsuccessful . The real number may be even larger, meaning that we fail at what we do at an alarming rate.
Past experiences prove that when a big system project is initiated, realistically it is expected to fail. Relying on a consulting company to fix the problem is not always a ticket for success, and purchasing innovative software may not help either.
For some reason, systems projects are created using a target that almost sets it up for failure. The question is: What really causes these systems projects to fail?
A possible answer could be ignorance toward common sense or the inability to recognize that great engineering principles that should be applied to software projects.
To avoid making mistakes in a systems project, three keys to success have been established. These critical success factors are: top management support, a sound methodology and solid technical leadership. 
- Top management support
- Sound methodology
- Solid technical leadership
Top management support basically means that top managers should always be committed and prepared when a project encounters issues, otherwise the systems project will fail. In any organization, the management staff should know from start that the project will meet setbacks along the way and should be ready to attack the problems as they come. If the implementation of a project is poor but the top management stays behind it and monitors its development, the project most of the time ends successfully. It is very important for the management to be educated about the process being used and their calculations need to be precise.
Way to often managers often don’t understand how a system is designed. They choose to get the help of consultants or advisors, yet the best way to ensure that a project is being managed correctly is to bring in a technical auditor. Usually, objective auditors can asses the situation provide the top managers and management staff with the information necessary to continue supporting the project.
Sound methodology refers to the well spoken and well developed process. Unfortunately, many times system projects do not receive the attention needed and the lack of attention to process can kill a system. Because large amounts of code have to be gathered and analyzed, management ignores it if it doesn’t meet the user requirements the first time. If it is completed and sent to the testing, the system will be tested wrong. Since the methodology is poorly constructed from beginning, the system will meet failure. The only way the project will show a successful completion is with a lot of rewrites and overruns.
It doesn’t really matter what methodology is used because there is no proof of which method is better. However, what is important is to keep the system organized, consistent and to think through the process carefully.
In developing a system, there are many tools of approach, like rapid prototyping, waterfall, object-oriented. An object-oriented approach will use analysis, while an Oracle professional will use a function hierarchy. If a company has experience with a certain approach, it would be welcome to use it. Certainly, if the method can be consolidated with the development tools selected, it would be beneficial for the system.
Technical Leadership is the third critical factor that influences a system project’s success. Leadership is an important component of systems projects but many times is forgotten. Its value relies in leader’s ability to check on the performance of staff, like energy, behavior, motivation and interest. The control over the organization of the project, which includes data model and design, has to be exercised by a technical lead. People who work in the same project should know the person in charge and address him/her if any complications to the system project may occur. As the lead of a project, the engineer must have accounting and financial expertise, as any system that includes financial functions merges with accounting.
There are many different styles of leadership and to achieve success the leadership needs to match the situation. Traditional engineering schools do not include leadership in their curricula, so instead of gaining leadership skills, students graduates tend to be more task-driven, with project leaders recognized based on their power and authority . Way to often, engineering organizations put the accent on management rather than leadership. But as Bennis and Nanus mentioned in their 1985 book, “Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing” . Truly, doing the right thing does not mean only finding out the best way to approach a project, but also being responsible for it in a continuous manner.
Many studies were carried on in order to find the most suitable personality traits for a born leader. The results are more or less similar, because there are many personality traits that form various results. Extraversion has a relationship with leadership roles, but it is not always a guarantee for success. In business context, the model used to aid with self-development and to boost employees’ strengths is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator(MBTI).
Some types of behaviors have been linked to successful leadership. These behaviors depend on the style of leadership and especially the attention paid to the task in comparison to team relationships. Professor scientist J.M.Burns describes these differences as transactional and transformational leaderships . The transactional style is closely tied to management and consists on giving rewards or punishment to people based on their performance on the job. The transformational leadership focuses on team-building, motivation and shared vision. Often labeled as the most valuable form of leadership, the idea is to enhance the culture of the organization and make sure it provides safety, learning and improvement to it’s employees.
For systems engineering, technical leadership plays a crucial role because it impacts engineering performance and flexibility. The ability to connect and communicate with other people is a social skill that technical leaders must have as they usually work with others on big projects and need to show that they are confident and trustworthy. Being knowledgeable is not enough now-a-days anymore, a true leader needs to be highly ethical, positive, flexible and open-minded, show personal and interpersonal skills . For systems engineering, leadership is a capability that can be spread among other engineers, since usually the complexity of systems projects calls for a “seasoned” person to ensure that the staff follows the most appropriate leadership. Various leadership styles and models exist, however not all of them prove successful. A very well- known model, the Wilson Social Styles, describes four kind of leadership styles:
- Driver leadership style – This is exhibited when a leader focuses on the work to be accomplished and on specifying how others must do their jobs.
- Analytical-style leadership – This emphasizes collecting, analyzing, and sharing data and information. An analytical leader asks others for their opinions and recommendations to gather information.
- Amiable leadership style – This is characterized by emphasis on personal interactions and on asking others for their opinions and recommendations.
- Expressive leadership style – Like the amiable style, this also focuses on personal relationships, but an expressive leader tells others rather than asking for opinions and recommendations .
When any of these styles are taken to extremes, the outcome can weaken the leadership.
By concentrating too much on the work, leaders can provide too much or too little guidance and direction. Too little guidance occurs when the individual is preoccupied with her or his personal work, while too much guidance results in micromanagement, which limits the personal discretion for team members. Technical leaders may also be insensitive to interpersonal relationships with team members and others. Analytical leaders may provide too much information or may fail to provide information that is obvious to them, but not their team members. They do not like to discuss things they already know or that are irrelevant to the task at hand. Like driver-style leaders, they may be insensitive to interpersonal relationships with other individuals. Amiable leaders focus on interpersonal relationships in order to get the job done. They may exhibit a dislike of those who fail to interact with them on a personal level and may show little concern for those who show little personal interest in them. Expressive leaders also focus on interpersonal relationships. In the extreme, an expressive leader may be more interested in stating their opinions than in listening to others. Additionally, they may play favorites and ignore those who are not favorites .
The communication style is also an important component of an effective leader.
Task-oriented assertiveness is exhibited in a communication style that emphasizes the work to be done rather than on the people who will do the work, while the people-oriented communication style addresses personnel issues first and tasks secondly. A tell-oriented communication style involves telling rather than asking, while an ask-oriented assertiveness emphasizes asking over telling. Movies, plays, and novels often include caricatures of extremes in the assertiveness and responsiveness dimensions of Wilson communication styles. An individual’s communication style may fall anywhere within the continuums of assertiveness and responsiveness, from extremes to more moderate styles and may vary considering the situation. Examples include:
- Driver communication style exhibits task-oriented responsiveness and tell-oriented assertiveness.
- Expressive communication style shares tell-oriented assertiveness with the driver style, but favors people-oriented responsiveness.
- Amiable communication style involves asking rather than telling and emphasizes people relationships over task orientation
- Analytical communication style exhibits task-oriented responsiveness and ask-oriented assertiveness 
In conclusion, communication can be both comfortable and difficult, depending on the person and on the approach. Technical leaders and management staff can improve their communications by giving consideration to the various communication styles and by trying to change their style to make others comfortable and at ease. Systems engineering projects call for open-minded, flexible and effective communicators; there is a need for the type of leaders that are effective both as managers and leaders and hold interpersonal and analytical skills. Although becoming such a leader may take time and perseverance, it is do-able and very much rewarding.
|P. Dorsey, “Top 10 Reasons Why Systems Projects Fail,” [Online]. Available: file:///Users//Downloads/Top%2010%20Reasons%20Why%20Systems%20Projects%20Fail%20(1).pdf.
|“Technical Leadership in Systems Engineering,” [Online]. Available: http://sebokwiki.org/wiki/Technical_Leadership_in_Systems_Engineering .
|W. . N. B. . Bennis, Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, Harper & Row , 1985.
|J. Burns, Leadership, H. &. Row, Ed., New York, 1978.
|B. a. W. Lloyd-Walker, “Authentic Leadership for 21st Century Project Delivery,” International Journal of Project Management, no. 29, pp. 383-395, 2011.
|L. Wilson, The Social Styles Handbook, N. V. Publishing, Ed., 2004.
|R. Fairley, Managing and Leading Software Projects, J. W. &. Sons, Ed., Hoboken, NJ, 2009.