IT project management can be a thankless task: being asked to deliver the impossible, for the ungrateful with the unknowing! Why are IT project managers often vilified even though they have done a reasonable job in delivering difficult projects?
In our experience, a combination of unclear responsibilities, inconsistent communication, poor quality assurance and undisciplined scope management are the usual contributing factors. The project manager usually bearing the brunt of the blame!
There are many project management methodologies that exist that provide frameworks to ensure that project objectives are delivered but these can be unwieldy and unless working in the public sector it is rare that we find these methodologies being rigorously followed.
So, as a project manager, how do you reduce the likelihood of project failure, ensure customers are kept happy and not go insane in the process? In our experience, it is possible to manage the Time, Cost, Quality triangle without the need for excessive project bureaucracy. Beyond the typical project management activities, here are 5 “must do’s” that can make the difference between success and failure.
5 Keys to Project Management
1) Clearly define project responsibilities
Make sure you have got individuals on the hook for the various roles within the project team. As a minimum make sure you know who:
i) the sponsor is e.g the person paying and who is accountable for the business benefit. This is the person who a project manager should look to, to take key decisions with regard to acceptable risks, deviations from quality standards and any changes to scope or delivery dates
ii) the delivery team e.g the people doing the work
iii) the business user e.g. the people who are going to use/consume whatever business change that you are delivering
iv) the project manager – ensure your role is clearly articulated including what you are and are not accountable for e.g. you are expected to track progress of work not be accountable for the progress itself!
2) Identify and actively manage risks
The Risk Register is the equivalent of the “red-headed” step-child and is usually populated with classic risk descriptions like “Project Delays” or “Budget overspend”! The risk register is your friend and if you invest time with the project team discussing what could go wrong, what would the impact be, who would deal with the issue if it arose, what would you do if it did and who should own the contingency – if and when the risk does materialise into an issue there is no need to panic because as a team you have already got a plan to deal with it and a stated owner. In our experience, the more you discuss and manage risk with the project team, the more risks are identified and mitigated by creating plans to deal with them.
3) Communications Plan
Work out who you need to communicate to, how you are going to communicate to each group, what the key message is, how frequently this will be performed and how the communication is going to be performed e.g. face to face, email, bulletin board, blog etc. Put this in a plan and track it regularly. Always refer to it, never ignore it. Regular stakeholder communication can make the difference between successful adoption of any business change and replace the inevitable project mythology.
3) Clearly state the project objectives
These, as a minimum, should articulate the time, cost and quality standards and should all be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound. So, a project should have a:
i) stated target time: day and date of when the business benefit is expected to be realised – this is not a system go-live date but rather the time when the business change has been delivered and the proposed benefit has been proven and accounted for! The go-live date would just be a milestone along the way.
ii) stated budget including a specific amount for contingency, this can be defined in either $ or man-days or both as necessary
iii) stated quality standards – this means a definition of exactly is going to be delivered and the expected level of quality
Be as precise as possible and avoid ambiguity of language. Project objectives are great to refer to throughout the project to ensure that don’t lose sight of what you are trying to achieve.
4) Measure the run rate
Tracking progress across all metrics and estimating the time/budget to complete is vital to ensure that you have early visibility on delays or overspends. Usually we find that project plans are marked as a percentage complete rather than any calculations that actually say “hey, if we continue as we are we will should deliver 2 days early and $1000 under budget” or “if we continue as we are, we are going to be delayed by 5 days and overspent by $1000”, that’s a risk that can have a mitigation plan assigned to it. The point is that the project team has early visibility of performance both good and bad.
5) Decision Log
Project Sponsors can have short memories! If we had a $1 every time we hear this conversation:
Project Sponsor: “who made that decision, that’s ridiculous!”
Project Manager: ‘you did”
Project Sponsor: ‘I don’t remember that, are you sure?”
If the response from the project manager is: “yes I am, if we can refer to the decision log, on the 4th October you decided that we would not regression test for Safari version 2 because only 2% of customers use that browser and that decision was ratified by the project team on the Project Meeting held on the 5th October” the challenge is usually stopped dead in it’s tracks and you can all move on.
Whilst these 5 “must do’s” will make common sense to most project managers, we find, all to often, that they are not common practice. The end result is that the ownership of the project lies with the project manager rather than the project sponsor, risks that could have been forewarned become issues that delay project schedules and unclear objectives can lead to confusion in the midst of the project when clarity is what is required. Regular and consistent communication is usually the first casualty and this makes the task of business change even harder to perform.
So, project managers, do yourself a favour and add these five tasks to your “To Do” list and set yourself up for project success!