There has never been a greater pressure to get IT projects right the first time. In most businesses, IT projects still struggle to get sign-off unless they deliver a rapid return on investment. Project delays or failures can wreck those ROI calculations.
In the public sector, IT is in the spotlight after the government’s Spending Review. While IT is central to efficiency savings, the public sector continues to suffer well-publicised failures.
In the face of these problems there is an ever-increasing emphasis on project management methodologies - covering everything from requirements gathering to end user acceptance testing. Nevertheless, a frustratingly large number of projects still go wrong.
Getting failing projects back on track where possible, or killing them off where necessary, is one of the hardest jobs in IT management. It requires a combination of deep insight into business processes and technology, project management methodologies and leadership, combined with superb diplomatic skills.
Signs of distressed projects
“There are many signs that a project is in distress,” explains Robert Westcott, an Interim CIO and Programme Manager. “The most common thing I see is that top management continues to be assured everything will be all right, while some other aspect of the project is very wrong”.
While all projects are different, some common characteristics of troubled projects include weak governance, blame shifting, incomplete deliverables and low team morale.
Daniel Naoum, co-founder of Valueshore, says, “the clearest and most obvious sign [of a troubled project] is when a project misses milestones”. When milestones slip more than once and no one has a firm idea of when the project will be completed, there is cause for concern.
A large budget or long delivery timeline may also indicate that a project is likely to get into distress. Andrew Taylor, Managing director of Bellington Black, a consultancy providing interim management support, says that his “personal target is to have no project running for more than 12 months from the initial specification to sign-off”. He explains that this allows a much better management of the scope and resources required by the project.
Recognising when a project is struggling and the causes of its problems is an important job for IT managers. Too often, mid-level managers become preoccupied with the day-to-day pressures of a difficult project and interim IT consultants are required to turn the project around.
Kill or rescue?
Deciding whether projects should be salvaged or dropped is a key decision.
Andrew Taylor says “there definitely is no formula for this [decision] but either way you would aim to at least cut back the project scope to deliver what is possible in the immediate period”.
A sound business case and delivery strategy must also be made for rescuing a project, explains Robert Westcott.
Deciding whether to rescue a project requires a comprehensive assessment of the costs and benefits of continuing. There is no silver bullet in this process and assessing the viability of a project requires strong project management skills.
For an in-depth project assessment, interim IT managers must fully understand the problem at hand. Managers must be aware of the project history and identify the people and data needs required to salvage the project.
Throughout this assessment phase, close communication with sponsors and the project team is essential. Talking to everyone involved in the project, explains Andrew Taylor, allows interim IT managers to understand the state of the project, the working environment and relationships within the current team.
Doing a thorough assessment enables sponsors and managers to decide whether a project is worth saving, and if it is, how this should be done.
Turning a project around
Once the decision to rescue a project has been made, a detailed roadmap is required to get the project back on track. Roadmaps should include streamlined objectives, an achievable schedule and a plan to re-establish manager and customer confidence.
At this stage, it is also important for interim project managers to focus on rebuilding team morale and relationships between clients, managers and team members. Saving a project cannot be done single-handedly – it depends on the cooperation and communication of all those involved.
Derek Miers, principal analyst at Forrester Research, believes that rescuing a project “is all about building an engagement programme – one that gets the business to truly own the project”. Derek says that most problems “are people problems” and it is important to create an environment where team members feel they can be honest about how the project is progressing.
Daniel Noaum at Valueshore explains, “Regular team meetings (at every level) are good practice in which all members will give an open account of progress made and if milestones have not been met”.
Honest reporting of progress is essential if a project is to succeed. It is also important to re-baseline the project to a meaningful level and recalibrate the roadmap schedule if necessary.
Once sponsors have approved a roadmap, it is important to retain tight control of progress, says Daniel Noaum. A useful, achievable roadmap should be broken down into milestones, and even “inchstones”.
There are many methodologies available to interim project managers, which can help turn around a project.
“I know Prince II, Agile, SSADM and a number of others”, explains Andrew Taylor, “and I create a programme methodology using the appropriate pieces from all of these to provide an appropriate approach for the recovery programme”.
Andrew believes that methodologies should never be used without taking account of the organisational culture and the project approach.
Daniel Noam also highlights the importance of the working environment: “The methodologies used will depend on the project being implemented, (the visibility required by clients and the speed at which tangible results are required”.
Many target organisations have their own methodologies and interim IT managers may have to work with the system their clients use. Robert Westcott says, “the main thing is to understand the principles on which all methodologies are based and make sure that methodologies are properly understood by [clients]”.
Each project is different and the methodologies that interim IT project managers use will depend on the requirements of the project.
Andrew Taylor explains, “the trick is to never let theory rule reality and experience; you have to bring these into balance to get the best solution”.
Robert Westcott quotes Tolstoy when reflecting on the problems faced by different IT projects: “Every happy family is happy in the same way; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
Although troubled IT projects have different problems and require different solutions, there are some general things that businesses and IT managers can do to help salvage their projects.
Westcott believes that businesses should ensure a feasible business case exists for the project and that corners should not be cut on governance – regular reviews and reports are essential for getting projects back on track. He also explains that interim IT managers should earn the trust of their team, rebuild their confidence and be clear and honest about the position of the project.
Noaum’s three main tips are to "provide visibility to all stakeholders, manage the risks and keep the tight control and follow-up of key milestones”.
Turning troubled IT projects around requires strong leadership and team work. A strong business case must be made for saving the projects and it is essential for IT managers to focus on solutions and drive recovery.