Getting troubled IT projects back on track

Recognising when a project is struggling and what the causes of its problems are is an important job for IT managers. Getting it back on track is even more important - and it requires project management skills, technology and business process knowledge, tact, determination and a thick skin.

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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.

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