Creating Success in IT Projects

By Alain Bolea and David Keller

A high proportion of Technology projects do not deliver: they are late, the product or service does not match end-user requirements, and/or requires significant late stage changes to satisfy the client’s needs. Such outcomes usually reduce a company’s competitive position, increase project costs, and strain relationships. Creating success in IT projects calls for greater project team alignment upfront.

Common Pitfalls of Technology Projects

At their inception, troubled projects tend to follow the same scenario; we call it “Rushing to fail” and it typically goes like this:

  • High-level project parameters are set by a few individuals using an incomplete view of the needs of end-users, project constraints and risks.
  • Because key project assumptions come from senior management, the project staff often unconsciously avoids fully vetting them; “solutions” are railroaded to meet timetable, budgets and requirements.

This faulty process, sourced in an incomplete view of the project as a whole combined with a rush to performance, is the real reason why projects fail.

Preparing for Success

Instead of rushing out of the gate, the early phase must carefully focus on preparation. Races are won because of the work that happens before the starting gun goes off. The critical period for a project is at the beginning when the team:

  • Defines business outcomes,
  • Matches expectations of clients and solution providers,
  • Outlines decision processes and workflows, and
  • Creates a common team mindset.

Most project failures can be traced back to unclear objectives and poor communications

Avoid unchecked assumptions

Typically senior management decides on the preliminary scope of the project first; then, the implementation team comes together representing the various stakeholders. For the most part project participants actually discover the project scope and the commitments they inherit at that moment. The normal response is to start working from senior management’s scope without fully exploring its assumptions and implications. This pattern coupled with a company’s political environment creates a situation where assumptions are left unchecked and risks remain hidden.

Without a deep common understanding, the team consequently sets out to work at a superficial level, and therefore tends to focus on speed of execution, focusing on minimizing immediate challenges and finding expeditious ways to meet the set commitments of outcome, price and time. This dynamic leads technology projects to fall short of meeting client’s needs, have significant late stage delays, material cost issues or to simply fail.

The key to an unbiased and complete review of risks and opportunities

Because stakeholders often suspect each other of having personal hidden agendas, they have a difficult time advancing the conversation without raising resistance and distrust. Left to their natural dynamics, initial meetings between project stakeholders more often than not get off on the wrong footing. Only an independent third-party can break up this systemic process flaw and ensure that the implementation team can come together effectively to vet out the project parameters and risk areas, and prepare a clear and realistic work plan that has buy-in of various stakeholders and aligns with the client’s needs.

  1. Paramount to healthy project starts are the following meeting facilitation elements:
    Ask the questions that may be uncomfortable to the participants, considered taboo or simply never considered at all;
  2. Ensure complete and open conversations do happen so no critical factor is missed or swept under the rug;
  3. Avoid being intimidated or railroaded into silence or a particular direction (stay objective and unbiased).

The art of team alignment and execution

By getting to the bottom of things with the project team upfront, implementation can and does accelerate because the project road map now deals with reality, minimizes pitfalls and late-stage costly changes. More importantly; all team members reach a complete understanding and alignment around the outcome and their respective commitments ensuring a successful outcome.

Experienced project professionals know that the inception phase where strategy and scope are vetted and team alignment created has the greatest impact on a project’s success.

How Alignment Delivers Value

The pay-off of a properly conducted first phase is evident. Skimping on the early phase or rushing past it dramatically increases the project’s overall cost, delays its timing and raises the likelihood of its failure. Avoid the temptations to accept unchallenged assumptions and to work with a team that is not aligned.

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