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2 April 2013

Mary Verney and ruthless scope management

By Andrew Clifford

When major projects go bad, ruthless scope management can save the organisation from ruin.

A few days ago I visited a local stately home, Claydon House. It has a lot of history, particularly around the time of the English civil war, and as the occasional residence of the nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale.

One episode in its history particularly appealed to me. In the mid to late eighteenth century, the then owner (the 2nd Lord Verney) decided to enlarge the house to a palatial scale, with a frontage of about 100 metres.

The motivation for the project was largely political. At the time, the wealthy aristocracy liked to show off with their country residences. Lord Verney was competing with his neighbour, Earl Temple at Stowe, who had created a magnificent residence.

To attempt to compete, Lord Verney had hired one of the most celebrated artisans of the time, Luke Lightfoot. Lightfoot was a wood carver, and was responsible for what is still one of the most remarkable rococo interiors at Claydon House.

But Luke Lightfoot's influence was not just in wood carving. Lord Verney had engaged him to design and build the entire project.

There were lots of problems with the project. It took decades, and exhausted the family's finances. Luke Lightfoot was not the most honest of men, and much of the money was embezzled. And although he was a very skilled wood carver, later archaeological research has shown that much of the house was not structurally sound.

The problems escalated. Lord Verney ran out of money, and had to flee the country to escape his creditors. By the time of his death in 1792, although the main parts of the building were in place, the project was far from complete.

Following his death, the house passed to his niece, Mary Verney. Faced with this massive, exorbitant and unfinished building project, she took a hugely courageous decision. Rather than complete the whole project, she decided to demolish two thirds of the new building, leaving just the West Wing.

There are a lot of parallels between Lord Verney's ill-fated building and major IT projects. The project was conceived as a "me too" project, to demonstrate the power of the owner. The project was handed over to people who looked the part, but lacked the proper qualifications to run the whole project. There was a woeful lack of financial control and governance. The project dragged on for decades, with disastrous effects on finances. It took a change of management (in this case, death), before any realism could finally filter into the project.

Mary Verney's decisions saved the situation. The "small" part of the project she kept was, and remains, a magnificent building. Her actions kept the family from financial ruin and, unlike the Temples at Stowe, the Verneys still live at Claydon House.

IT is saddled with a legacy of major projects gone bad. Many projects have their roots in less financially constrained times, and are now a serious strain on resources. Like Mary Verney, we need to be ruthless in reducing scope to something manageable and affordable.

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