The Devil's in the detail

The Devil's in the detail

Project management has been around since the pyramids. But while a project's direction, budget and deadline were easily controlled by the foreman with the big whip in Egypt circa 2560 BC, things aren't so simple these days.

Take IT, for example. It's been said that 70 per cent of all IT projects fail to meet their original objectives, while only 16.2 per cent are considered a success. It's one of the oldest quotes still bandied around the industry. Despite the best-laid plans, experienced personnel and admirable commitment from all parties involved, IT projects consistently fall over. Perhaps it's all a matter of perspective, but, as any programmer working in salt-mine conditions when the coffee machine is on the fritz while integrating back-end databases with front-end e-commerce applications on a shoestring budget knows, the pyramids were peanuts.

So why is it so hard to implement IT projects?

Project horror stories - whether they're tales of failed ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions that plunge once-reputable companies into administration or whether they're of the more common "that's not the Web site I wanted" variety - seem to have one thing in common: the business needs of the customer often change before a project can be completed. In the process, a deliverable that was once the cornerstone of a project can suddenly become relegated to at best the peripheral.

It would be easy to assume that project managers are to blame. Yet everything suggests that most people involved in project management know their basics well. Ask them and they'll tell you that good communication across all parties, accurate scoping of requirements and objectives, and sound reporting of progress are essential messages of the project management gospel. So the real question is: how does a project manager avoid the pitfalls?

"Project management begins with identifying risks and negotiating with the customer to ensure we've understood what the customer wants," says Richard Steel, professional services manager for NCR's worldwide customer services division.

Like many a seasoned project leader, Steel believes project management starts at the proposal stage. But some take this rule even further, with one former project manager revealing that "I never bid for a tender I didn't write". Sounds strange? Well, not exactly. With a lot of industry experience, the project manager (who didn't want to be named), said he was often called in as a consultant to help write tender specifications. "And it's easy to start cutting [competition] out when you're there from the beginning," he'd gloat. Ethical or not, understanding the ins and outs of a project from the specs stage forward is crucial to good project management.

Presuming an integrator has already secured a project, Steel says an integrator's staff is next in order of importance. Good project managers will keep tabs on what sales opportunities, and subsequent projects, are coming down the funnel, he says. This is a business planning method designed to prevent technical and engineering resources from becoming overburdened by having to jump from one project to another - or work on several projects concurrently. Poorly managed, however, this technique can lead to missed deadlines, unhappy customers and low staff morale.

A key thing, according to John Bostleman, general manager for software integration and development company Candle Corp, is to pass on bonuses for achieving deadlines to technical staff. This can provide a good incentive to non-sales staff that aren't privy to commission programs or accelerators.

While most agree that "project managers need to be more than people who can wield a big stick", Steel believes the IT industry is only now starting to recognise project management as a distinct profession, with courses designed to teach specific skill sets.

Rob Pearsall, a partner at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, is responsible for conducting internal project management courses for his company. With an established history in project management, Pearsall also runs Deloitte's JD Edwards ERP practice and is no stranger to the challenges that managing large-scale deployments can present.

Over the past five years, Pearsall has noticed a change in the way projects are managed. "Five years ago there wasn't as much hype, as the projects were more based on infrastructure at the operations level of a business. Now the integration is more software-based, designed to enable the company to be more strategic. This shift has made projects more complex and made it harder to set down a ‘blueprint' design," he says.

Now project managers have to "feel" their way through projects, which Pearsall acknowledges can lead to budget blowouts and projects running over time. This is where sound progress reports and strong communication channels are essential.

Often it comes down to the customer. Pearsall claims two of the biggest issues facing IT projects are a lack of executive sponsorship from all levels within the customer's organisation and an underestimation of how it will affect their resources. The customer's employees end up performing two roles: driving the project as well as their day job.

"All people want to know is, ‘how's this going to affect me?'" Pearsall says.

A number of project managers highlight the importance of keeping a close eye on what all departments within a company are looking for. The danger is that middle management, alienated by decisions made at a board level, make additional demands throughout the project or hoard critical information on how their business processes operate.

Having been involved in project management for over 10 years, Netbridge managing director David Evans says that every customer should have staff with decision-making authority dedicated to the project, to avoid what he refers to as "part-time" project managers.

"In some cases it might take the customer a year and a half to decide what they want and then turn around and say, ‘You can still finish this by December right?' Well, actually no," Evans says. "There has to be a meeting of the minds [with the customer]. After all, you're married for 18 months."

Managing complexity

"If I had to pick one single thing about projects today, it is that for any solution there is more than one supplier involved," says Deloitte's Pearsall.

More and more projects cross international borders and involve multiple levels of local personnel, business partners, contractors and even country-specific laws and regulations. As such, all projects are inevitably political, and most people agree that a good project manager has to be diplomatic enough to smooth over dented egos and crossed communications, and forceful enough to get the job done.

"Projects have this great infrastructure of policies and documentation, but at the end of the day people deal with people," says Pearsall. "All projects have their challenges, so it's important the key leadership team is in place to be responsive to issues that arise."

One of the greatest challenges facing project managers in the current business environment is the speed at which businesses are evolving, let alone how quickly the technology is developing. The demand for any competitive advantage is immediate, which for project managers means more complex rollouts in shorter time frames.

And that's a challenge when you're dealing with bleeding-edge technology that has not been widely deployed or tested. It's catch-22: companies invest in cutting-edge technology to give them an edge over competitors, but because the technology is new it can come with a rash of unforeseen problems, which erode that competitive advantage.

Netbridge's Evans says deploying new technology makes it harder to set realistic deadlines. "People build projects where they want new applications and more hardware [infrastructure] running on a new operating system. There's too many moving parts. You're better off taking it a step at a time," Evans says.

"At the end of the day, you're after real business benefits and it's a case of managing the pointy end of leading technology against the business benefits to the customer."

Conversely, Evans says customers have to realise that what they embark on now might have little relevance to where their business is 15 months down the track.

Managing timeframes

The timeframes for the majority of projects are shrinking. What was once an 18-month endeavour is now being demanded in 90 days. And while this is a testament in many cases to how far the technology has come, it means reduced benchmark and testing periods, and in many cases completely doing away with a pilot.

Evans says the pressure to meet deadlines and budgets has largely phased out the practice of solid testing before wide-scale deployment. With a number of projects going live from inception, testing becomes crucial to avoid larger problems as the project matures.

"One project I heard of recently was where they were already a year behind. So they had the consultants in and they had a presentation by the vendor and at one point someone stood up and said, ‘You do realise that if you're running it on that [platform] then it's going to set your business back six months'," says Evans. "You can imagine what the customer's reaction was: ‘Nobody told me that. Where was that on the features and benefits list?'"Contingency planning is crucial to ensuring companies continue trading regardless of where a project is at. "If you're trying to cross live to a new system on Sunday at 10am and then if the system isn't ready by a certain time on Sunday night, you have to be prepared to roll back so at least the company can operate first thing Monday morning. It might be a little embarrassing, but you can't be half pregnant," says Evans.

Built to order

If project management in IT were to be compared to any industry it would have to be the building sector. It's a good comparison to make, given the magnitude of some building projects and the chronological head-start building has over IT.

So what insights can IT glean from the building sector? According to Greg Carmichael, project manager for APP Projects, stating the obvious is one. In essence it's a case of getting back to basics.

Over the course of his career, Carmichael has managed the construction of apartment blocks, high-rises, call centres and even got roped into overseeing the construction of the Beach Volleyball complex at Bondi for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, initially as a favour to a mate. He's also worked hand-in-hand with IT projects, building call centres for the likes of Westpac.

Whether it's a major civic building or an IT project, there are three questions Carmichael says project managers should be asking the customer and themselves continuously throughout the process.

"You've got to be asking how much is this going to cost, how long is it going to take, and is this what the customer wants. Obviously you ask these in different ways throughout the project, and the answers, or reports, should be monitored against previous estimates."

Carmichael takes a no-nonsense approach to project management. Although he's cautious not to demand too much from his client, if the customer isn't throwing straight dice it's his responsibility as the project manager to ensure the customer knows exactly what it's going to get from each stage of the project.

He refers to a practice of "embellishing" whereby divisions within a customer start adding requirements to a project after the initial scoping work has been done. It's a practice also common in the IT sector where IT infrastructure is so important to business processes.

Carmichael says that project managers have to look at who's controlling the scope, and if customers are embellishing that scope it is up to the project manager to monitor this.

As far as construction sites go, Carmichael relies a lot on a good foreman. He says it's a position that is often performed but rarely recognised in IT projects.

"You can ask a good foreman any question about the job and get the right answer." Project management has been around for a long time, but IT is only now coming to terms with the importance of a good project manager. While some would argue it doesn't have to be an exact science, if the customer wants the project completed on time and to budget, it becomes fairly important to cross the t's and dot the i's.

Five steps to ease organisational change1. Understanding change. Change is achieved by each individual, not by a charismatic leader. So exhorting people to "change" is about as effective as standing over a potted plant and telling it to grow. The conditions have to all be right for it to happen.

2. Budgeting and planning. Change is about the people, so additional time and money are needed to take care of the people and their needs throughout the change cycle. Workgroup "change champions" are effective if properly trained and motivated.

3. Sustain management and leadership commitment. Realise that for 18 to 36 months, the implementation (post pilot) will continue to need strong commitment from management.

4. Free the customer's workers. Enable the customer to leverage your resources to free the organisation's staff to focus on their people, the processes, and their adoption of the new system.

5. Plan the customer's training appropriately. Ensure the customer accounts for not only classroom learning, but also "floor support" and focus groups.

Source: Becky McGaw, Solution 6's special projects manager

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