Manage IT Projects Like A Symphony
By: Mat Herron, Community Writer
In the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” Hooli founder Gavin Belson opens the show’s third season by shutting down one of the company’s poorly performing divisions. “Failure is growth. Failure is learning,” Belson says. “But sometimes failure is just failure.”
For many IT projects, that failure is frequent. In 2012, McKinsey & Company, in cooperation with University of Oxford, published research findings on 5,400 large-scale IT projects, which cost $15 million or more. They found cost overruns totalling $66 billion, more than the gross national product of Luxembourg, and that 17 percent of failed IT projects threaten the existence of their companies.
Even worse: Failure is expected. Of the 596 executives surveyed by software development firm Geneca for its 2011 report, 75 percent said their projects were doomed from the start. Seventy-eight percent said the business is “out of sync with project requirements,” just over half think the business objectives of the project are clearly defined, and only 23 percent agree when the project is “done.”
With this level of deficiency, miscommunication and financial mismanagement, how do IT project managers facilitate and achieve success for their customers?
Run the project like a symphony, where everyone plays together.
The Right Leader
Like a conductor helps an orchestra deliver sound that’s pleasing to an audience, a project manager helps his or her team deliver an outcome pleasing to a client.
Satisfying that client requires the manager to have empathy. “Project managers need the mindset that a project is about helping end users and teammates, not themselves,” said Scott Drake, director of technology at USMLE-Rx and leadership trainer with 20 years’ experience in the IT space. “Project managers need to be great at seeing things through the eyes of others, so they can deliver solutions that others will think are great.”
Second, the manager must be a business-outcome oriented leader who defines success in business terms, not technological ones. “It’s easy for technical teams to get lost in the weeds of the parts and pieces that go into a solution and lose sight of why the organization is investing in the project in the first place,” Drake said.
Third, the manager must approach problems systematically and favor innovation. “A great IT project manager should wake up in the morning with a burning desire to plan and organize something. It should be a personality trait, not something we have to train for,” Drake said.
The Right Kickoff
Work management blog Wrike says that once the contracts are signed, hosting a kickoff meeting with everyone involved in the project puts people on the same page. This meeting is where the team agrees, out loud and on paper, on what your team is going to do. Set the vision for the project, identify roles for each team member and develop the initial project plan. Get specific about what “success” is, establish a process for communication, as well as the project management process your team will be following. If you are using visual aids, send them to the team in advance. Be thorough, but try to keep the meeting as short as possible. “Your entire team needs to attend, even if it’s via conference call, or video chat,” Wrike says.
IT project managers must employ three best practices today: agree on what a successful outcome is, ensure continuous feedback from business teams to technical teams, and assemble the right technical team.
Project sponsors (i.e., the people paying for the project) and managers must agree on what a successful outcome is, as well as the decision-making criteria.
“As someone who has been in the trenches of technology projects for many years, I have routinely seen poor decisions made because proper decision-making criteria was never communicated to the team,” Drake said. “Targets must be communicated in relation to quality, level of usability, expected asset lifespan, risk tolerance, price consciousness, speed to market, and many other factors. Without that information, technical teams are likely to make decisions for the wrong reasons and outcomes will suffer.”
Secondly, business teams must give continuous, not occasional, feedback to programmers and other members of the technical team. “Through diagrams, wireframes and prototypes, shorter release cycles or sketches on whiteboards and napkins, technology teams should not work for more than a couple of weeks — a couple of days sometimes — without some mechanism for the business team to verify it is on the right track,” Drake said.
Third, IT project managers must exercise good judgment when hiring technical teams. “A recipe for a bloated, over-engineered solution is giving a routine problem to an innovative team,” Drake said. “Giving a high-level, business-oriented team a technically challenging problem won’t work well either. Adding a social programmer to a solitary team is a disaster waiting to happen.”
When a project threatens to go off the rails, managers and sponsors can default to greater oversight. But in a July 2015 article about IT project failure rates, Gartner Research Director Darryl Carlton says more supervision isn’t always the best rescue tactic. “Governance does not mean only the creation of a project reporting structure,” Carlton said. “When a project starts to stumble, increasing the volume and scope of upward reporting will only place more burden on the project and will be unlikely to improve the likelihood of success.” Creating more rules and more complexity in a project could unintentionally force your team to report its way into failure. Keep the focus on achieving great outcomes, not great bureaucracies.
What Won't Change
In the end, effective IT project managers will possess bedrock leadership skills needed to solve problems. Understanding people, assembling the right team, preparing a business for inevitable change in their industry, and prioritizing simplicity over complexity are more important than any one technological advancement.
“What doesn’t change are core management and leadership skills, which unfortunately are underdeveloped for many managers working in technology,” Drake said. “I encourage my managers to worry less about how technology will change their jobs in the next five years and focus more on improving core management and leadership skills. Continually improving core management skills will better prepare IT Project Managers for the technical changes that are guaranteed to come.”
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Run IT Projects Like A Symphony