Why Do IT Project Teams Constantly Forget Critical Details?

Because that’s the way humans are hard-wired. 

In the last article I explained that 3/4ths of all technology enabled business project (aka IT project) failures were due to the fact that the business team never fully communicates to the tech team what it is that the new system needs to do and why it needs to do it. This results in a silent void where business requirements need to be. That void is comprised of all the details the business forgets to share, all the questions the tech team forgets to ask, and all the assumptions they both forget to confirm. 

I use the term ‘forget’ as a reductive euphemism for a collection of mental processes that psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently begun to understand. And while the term itself doesn’t carry a particularly negative connotation, when someone in business or on a project forgets to do or say something—regardless of how minor—that’s usually not a good thing, either for the company or the reputation of the person who forgot. 

Today I’m going to start to unpack both these mental processes and our reactions when someone forgets something in a business context. In each case I’m going to argue that the way we currently view and think about forgetting is diametrically opposed to the way we ought to view and think about forgetting. My intent isn’t so much to say we’re wrong, as to explain that in the last 20-30 years the facts have shifted beneath our feet. What we have believed to be factual for 5,000 years is wrong. And just as maritime navigation changed once we realized the earth was not flat, so too must our navigation of IT projects change as we discover our brain doesn’t work the way we thought.

As the discussion of mental processes is going to be fairly protracted and span a period of several weeks, I’m going to start with the easy part—how we react when someone forgets some detail in business. 

In a nutshell, it’s poorly. The usual knee-jerk response is that the person made a mistake. They didn’t do something that they naturally should have done. Our default expectation is that all workers will remember to do or say all the things—to perform and communicate all the details—that need to be done or said, on time, and in the proper manner. Any deviation from that expectation is considered a failure attributable to carelessness, incompetence or diminished mental capacity. We assume that the forgetting would not have happened if the person were only more diligent, competent or intelligent. 

Historically, humans have and generally continue to assume the worst when others violate societal norms or expectations. When they do not do what we expect them to do, or they do something we don’t expect. The reason we hold such beliefs is because we think that person is in control of their actions. Indeed, we have believed for more than 5,000 years that the conscious spirit of man dictates the actions of man. We think that we control our brains and our behavior. What we have only recently discovered is it’s largely the other way around. Our brains control us.

I’m going to explain these discoveries and how our brain controls us in some detail over the coming weeks, but I’d like to set the stage for that discussion with a thought experiment that I would ask you to consider. 

We all know how to hold our breath, right? We’ve known since we were little kids. All we have to do is say to ourselves, “Stop breathing” and our body complies. We’re not exactly sure where the on-off switch is in our head, but we know it’s there because we don’t have to think about breathing. Our brain handles our respiration automatically. 

Now let’s look at another thing our brain handles automatically—our heartbeat. If we were to extrapolate from our ability to hold our breath, we might reasonably expect that we could stop our heart as well. But again, we’ve known since childhood that’s impossible. We can’t stop our heart like we can our respiration. 

That’s interesting, isn’t it. We’ve got two things that our brain handles automatically. We’re aware of both, but one we can override and control. The other we can’t. 

There’s actually a third category of things our brains do automatically. However, unlike the first two categories, we aren’t aware of them, and over them, like the second, we have no control. For example, do you have any idea what your liver or thyroid are up to right now? Unless those organs are currently experiencing a major malfunction, you almost certainly don’t. From regulating your body temperature to regaining your balance after you trip, there are literally thousands of things your brain does 24X7 in the background that you have no awareness of and no control over. This is the realm of the unconscious where roughly 95-97% of everything our brain does is hidden from our view. 

What I will discuss in the coming weeks is that “forgetting” is not a failure of diligence, competence or intelligence. It is the direct result of a collection of unconscious mental processes—of which we are neither aware nor can control—that are crippling our ability to successfully execute technology enabled business (IT) projects. Forgetting to share or attend to some detail is not a random accident or oversight. We are biologically programmed to forget. Our default state is not to remember. Our default state is to forget. We are not designed to pay attention to details. We are designed to ignore them. Today we view the act of forgetting as a bug. It’s actually a design feature. We assume that we can control what we remember and the accuracy of those memories. We can’t control either. 

We have been groomed by millions of years of evolution to be big picture people. Our brains, our memories, our automatic, involuntary responses have not been designed to be perfect. They’ve been designed to be just good enough, to keep us alive long enough, to procreate and pass on our genes. We care about the presence of a predator, like a tiger. We could care less about how much the tiger weighs, the color of his eyes, or how many teeth he has. The only thing we need to know is that the tiger is close and can kill us. That’s the story we remember. Everything else is superfluous and ignored.

This evolutionary programming worked well for millions of years. But things started to change roughly around the turn of the last century. Life started to get more complex. In less than 117 years we went from our first flight at Kitty Hawk to our first flight on Mars—an exponentially more complex undertaking. Details that we never had to think about before started to matter. And then the number of details that we had to deal with exploded.  Modern technology projects are infinitely more complex than the hardest things our great-great-grandparents ever had to contend with—which was hitching the horse up to the buggy.

Modern humans have far surpassed the design limits of our mental mechanism. Unfortunately, we have not adjusted the ways we interact with or think about that mechanism to accommodate those limitations. We are expecting our brain to work in ways that it was never designed to work. And when it breaks down—which it does so often as to cause 75% of all IT project failures and waste roughly $1.3 Trillion per year in the US alone—instead of acknowledging and adjusting to the limitations of that mechanism, we get mad and unjustly blame the operator (i.e., the person to whom that brain belongs) for being stupid, lazy, or incompetent. What happens every day when someone forgets something in an IT project is comparable to a three year old throwing a tantrum because his tricycle won’t do 100 mph. 

I suspect that in the not-too-distant future the only people who will be accused of being stupid, lazy, or incompetent will be those who refuse to accept what we’re learning about our brain and adjust their management practices to put guardrails around mental limitations that no one can control. I say this because the way most respond now does nothing to fix our “forgetting” problem or advance the cause of our IT projects. To the contrary, for reasons I’ll explain in the weeks ahead, it makes things worse. Our typical response is not only ineffective, it’s destructive, unethical and immoral. It has to change. 

As I said last week, I hope you’ll stay with me throughout this series because my objective is to explain a simple solution to effect such a change. If you’re curious about (or just doubt) what I’ve shared above and would like more evidence, please watch my December, 2022 presentation to the PMI Global Summit, check out some of the 30-plus references I provide, or download our whitepaper now.