What is it about information technology projects?

Since Gartner highlighted project management as a critical success factor for information technology (IT) projects in ’95, we’ve seen a flood of training, methodology, and PMO initiatives that continue today. Despite this massive investment in better project management, IT projects are a continued source of frustration for many organizations.

It’s easy for a bystander to throw stones, so I’ll start by saying that things are a lot better in most IT organizations that they were in ’95. But it’s also undeniable that IT projects continue to have a rocky record. Like most puzzles, the better we understand the source of the problem, the closer well be to solving it.

So let’s examine four dimensions of the IT project puzzle, which will lead us to some of the current best practices in IT project management.

  1. IT Projects Change Business Processes. Information technology projects support business goals and frequently change the way people within the organization work. So nearly every IT project includes an element of redefining what work is done, as well as the way it is done. Business process change adds an entire new category of risk.
  2. There Is an Endless Demand for IT Projects. Few significant organizational changes are accomplished without an IT dimension. Continuously improving technology creates continuous opportunities for improving productivity and innovating products or services. That contributes to failure by overloading personnel and by taking on the wrong projects.
  3. Technology Expertise Ages Quickly. As the capabilities of new technologies continue to grow, our expertise for implementing and supporting the technology must grow, too. It makes sense that a risk factor for IT projects is that we find them difficult to estimate. How can we forecast the time and effort well require when we are still learning the technology?
  4. IT Projects Include Interfaces. As if applying new technology to newly invented business processes isn’t trouble enough, chances are pretty high that the project will include interfaces to one or more existing systems. Interfaces increase complexity and therefore scope. Scope for IT systems can also include hardware and operating systems factors that may not be apparent during initial analysis.

Notice that addressing these challenges push us outside the boundaries of pure project management. They defy any ‘silver bullet’ methodology or software. Yet understanding these four challenges makes it easier to see the source of what have become proven best practices in IT organizations. Here are six practices you should be looking for in your IT organization.

  1. Focus on Solving Business Problems, Not Deploying Technology.

    This principle has been present since the first business system was deployed, and it is the drive behind the re-emergence of business analysts as key contributors on our team.

  2. Disciplined Project Management, Particularly Risk Management.

    The good news is that many teams rigorously practice proven project management techniques. Given the risks associated with changing processes and new technology, risk management takes on a greater role.

  3. Set Realistic Baselines Using Phased Estimates.

    Baselining a project too early is a guarantee the schedule and budget won’t be met. Phased estimating provides a realistic approach to balancing the need for cost and schedule targets with the reality of discovery that exists on many IT projects.

  4. A Project Management Office Promotes the Discipline and Coordinates the Projects.

    Disciplined project management does not occur naturally. It is a conscious choice that requires commitment and encouragement. It is even more effective when the mechanics of project management are practiced consistently from one project to the next. The PMO also keeps an eye on the coordination that needs to happen among projects.

  5. Project Portfolio Management Maintains a Realistic and Strategically Aligned Workload.

    Project Portfolio Management is the process for engaging customers and the IT management team to prioritize projects and to draw the line on how many projects are too many.

  6. Choose an Appropriate Development Approach.

    The rise of Agile software development techniques is a response to the element of discovery that exists in many IT projects. Some projects will benefit from an Agile approach, others will benefit from a waterfall or other more traditional approach. Projects are not all the same. Understand the distinctions between these methods and choose the one that fits the project.

IT projects rarely have an auto-pilot switch. They take skill and attention to guide effectively. Recognizing the four challenges described here is the first step in solving the IT project puzzle.