Governments are very good at them. The aircraft carriers that will have no aircraft (at least not for a long time, and when they do get them they will not be fit for purpose), Destroyers that do not work in warm water, HS2 etc.
In the case of HS2, see Simon Jenkin’s article on fast railways, but common sense should tell everyone that they are not needed in the UK, the distances are too short. The Hinkley Point nuclear power station is another vanity project. We need nuclear power but the choice of solution and commercial terms should have led to its cancellation years ago. Smart meters is yet another, the benefits are minimal and accrue to the power companies who will charge consumers more, not to the consumers.
The biggest problem with vanity projects is that once started they gain a momentum of their own and are almost impossible to stop. They can be of no strategic use and a complete waste of money but are still pushed by vested interests – the fast railways article provides an excellent example. Hundreds of billions are being spent on projects that should have never been started or stopped early.
Computer projects are not immune. The DWP’s Universal Credit programme is another vanity project – it is unlikely it will ever deliver the benefits claimed as pointed-out by John Seddon many years ago. However, vanity projects don’t just happen in the public sector. The Royal Bank of Scotland’s acquisition spree is another classic that led to the collapse of RBS and cost taxpayers £45bn so far (although we may eventually get some of that back). Most companies have at least one vanity project underway. I recall one, a pan-EMEA SAP “shared service centre” that had over 200 PwC consultants working on it (at an average of around £1600 per day) each.
Before any project is started the question “is this a vanity project” should be asked? Why are we doing this project? Is it because we have to (e.g. for regulatory reasons)? Is it because we need to do it to get competitive/strategic advantage? Is it to make us more efficient? etc. Hard questions that people within an organisation (employees) find it hard to ask, especially in some cultures. Many non-Exec Directors fail to ask the hard questions that they should – they are almost employees.
Let us put the big government projects aside; the government believes that the “Major Projects Authority” has these under control. It clearly does not. Instead, focus on software intensive projects
I have long held the view that every major software intensive project should have a review carried out by a completely independent team, ideally external. A lot of programmes that I have been brought in to troubleshoot should never have been started.
Once everyone is convinced that a project should be done, if at all possible, an iterative or “proof on concept” approach should be adopted. You can even call it Agile development.
One of the major advantages of Agile, is that, provided you have an underlying scaleable architecture, you find out very quickly whether you are on the right path to solving the problem – you have a proof of concept, a prototype, that can be used to get feedback.
Since Agile is now considered to be a panacea, I am waiting for someone to propose an Agile only approach to delivering very large, complex projects. I need a good laugh.