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Perfect Projects

Perfect Projects

It's a scenario familiar to most CIOs. You back an IT project to the hilt, get buy-in from every stakeholder and his son, resource it to the full, then watch it crash to the ground, leaving morale -- and your reputation -- in tatters. When projects are delivered past time and over-budget, or cancelled before completion, some of the blame may lie with the project manager. Or even, perhaps, on the failure to use one.

Good project managers should sit between the business people and the technologists, understanding the business imperatives as well as they understand the technology, then bridging the gap between the two. They are there to juggle tight schedules, new business imperatives, competing technologies, and conflicting goals and personalities as they figure out what the business will look like after the project is complete. Their days are spent managing complexity, customers, risk, change and stakeholders even as they build corporate advantage.

But they are a rare species, in ever-greater demand as organisations seek to develop a project culture and elevate the status of the project manager. According to John Flynn, co-director of the Project Managers Network, the role of the project manager will assume growing importance as CIOs become increasingly aware of their ability to control the reliability of projects and bring costs into line. "We take for granted that a typical IT project will take longer, cost more and won't deliver the goods. That's stupid," Flynn says.

"People in equally creative and undefined areas such as filmmaking still manage to pull things in, more or less on budget and on time. The difference is in a film. They'll budget six months just to plan it. To do Gandhi they spent something like six months to plan just 120 days in India. There's no excuse why we can't do the same, except no one is prepared to spend enough money on planning."

That's where the project manager comes in. But for some CIOs making best use of the project manager will call for no less than a sweeping change in the way they view projects. Larry Miller, a director of Technology and Engineering Solution Centres, Asia Pacific, says too few people realise that even very small projects need to be managed through a process or proven methodology, to help the organisation build up its capacity to manage large-scale projects. "A lot of people feel they don't need to follow a methodology until they get a $10 million, 50-person project. In fact, it's just the opposite: if you start using the tools and the methods early for smaller projects, then it isn't so overwhelming when you get to something large," Miller says.

Rare Breed

Great project managers have a detailed understanding of the components that make up effective project management, plus a body of experience in putting those components in practice. They understand human behaviour as thoroughly as they understand organisational issues, and they know it takes more than just a bringing together of technically competent people to complete the job.

But as IT project management becomes increasingly accepted as an IT discipline in its own right, many CIOs are learning that not everyone who calls himself a project manager is up to the task. "Good project managers are difficult to find these days, particularly in our business of developing and implementing software applications," Miller says. "The industry average of successful projects is low, unfortunately, with a little less than 30 per cent of projects actually started and completed on time and within budget. And I think if you look at the root causes of why it's so low, it's generally attributed to good project management practices not being followed."

The practices and key processes of project management are well documented in industry standards put out by organisations like the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM). "There is a discipline, a science, to project management. If you haven't been trained in the methodologies; and if you haven't, more importantly, applied those methodologies and learnt how they work or don't work in certain circumstances, all you've got is a title," says TAB project manager, software development, Colin Hickling.

"Project management is a term that has, certainly in the last couple of years, been applied as a management title. And it can be that; but then it is only a management title," Hickling says. "The sorts of people who deliver technology and new technology solutions into organisations to the standards that people want and to the timeframe that is necessary and within the cost constraints that apply are people who are formally trained, are skilled and experienced in doing this sort of stuff. It is a discipline."

On the other hand, while anyone can learn the technical aspects of project management, says GIO planning and project office manager Noel Phelan, not everyone has the mindset of a good project manager. "The jump from being a technologist to being in a project management job and getting the mindset that goes with that, which is being responsible and accountable for results, is difficult," he says. "The most valuable thing I think we've done is provide people that are experienced project managers to mentor those people, and not only help them develop the skills but help them develop the right mindset."

Phelan says that in many organisations taking charge as a project manager can mean being prepared to tell senior people what they need to do to move the project along. It's easy once you think like a project manager, but hard if you don't. Effective management of IT projects involves much more than conscientious use of project management software. It means picking the right -- and best qualified -- project manager for the job. It means giving him the tools and resources he needs and keeping to some project-management best practices that consistently applied can reduce the risk of project failure.

Miller says when he chooses a project manager he's more interested in their ability to follow a documented, repeatable and proven methodology than in their personal experience -- although the latter can help. "Certainly you look for high-quality, successful track record people; but you also want to get some understanding of their methods and to ensure they don't get the project coming in on time through brute force, but through a proven methodology."

Harold Ainsworth, a co-director of the Project Management Network, says it's just as crucial to match the project manager to the project. (Ainsworth provides project management tips in "Measuring Up", page 66.) "Look at the project in terms of its complexity, its size, its risk, what you're trying to do, and then try to find someone with relative experience. A lot of people get put into project management positions who don't have the appropriate experience -- they may have been running a team of 10 people and then get put in charge of running a team of 50 people: it's a totally different thing. When you're managing a team of 50 or 60 people what you're really managing is a lot of other managers; you're not down there managing the team."

Facilitating Their Role

There are many things a CIO can do to facilitate the project manager's task in order to get the best out of this important position. Optus CIO Chris Bird thinks that above all else it's vital that project managers be managed adaptively. Give a proven project manager with a good track record maximum leeway and autonomy within a certain governance framework to get on with the job, Bird says. Novice project managers should be managed more closely, and counselled and coached as required.

Meanwhile, Miller stresses the importance of letting the project manager choose his or her own team, accepting that project managers will generally want to work with people who have either worked with them before or at least fully understand the processes and methodologies they want to employ. "As a project manager you start managing projects early in your career on a small scale, then continually build your skills and experience through broader scope, more complex projects, a wider customer base, and so forth. So really developing good project managers is a never-ending task, because as soon as you manage one large project there's another larger one right behind it," Miller says.

Bryan Bussell is the National Australia Bank's global program director and runs the bank's Y2K project globally. He says to get the most out of your project managers you must first clearly define their responsibilities and accountabilities. Sure, that advice sounds like it comes straight out of Project Management 1.01, Bussell says, but it is all too easy either to fail to define responsibilities in the first place or change them halfway through the project.

Make sure the project manager comes up with some realistic expectations about time and cost, Ainsworth says. "Typically, estimates are done early in the piece when we don't really understand what we're trying to do; they get set in concrete, and therefore they become the expectation in terms of time and cost," he says. "Instead, make sure the project managers get a chance to come up with some realistic time and cost estimates based on sensible requirements; and it may be that you have to go through a number of iterations to do that."

Never let the project manager feel they are working in isolation on projects no one else really cares about. Phelan says this is where setting up a steering committee or a sponsor can help by providing a support structure.

Ken Pritchard, the Commonwealth Bank's Y2K program director, says he learnt his notion of project management at the school of hard knocks. Above all, he says, project directors need to know there's commitment to the project from the top down, and -- even more difficult -- cross-functional team buy-in. "As part of the project establishment you need to ensure that all the key players in the project are identified and actually buy in. It's important at that time that you define quite clearly what the scope of the project is and what it touches. Importantly, from a budget perspective, you need senior management support in relation to that budget," he says.

"You still have stringent controls about the management of the budget. [However, this] needs to be provided and well scrutinised, and to do that there must be a clear understanding and expectation of cost. So it is important that the forecast is the thing that you manage."

The Project Office

As more companies realise the advantages of adopting a project approach to operations, many are striving to build project-management cultures. The project office is quickly becoming the framework to develop that culture and enhance project performance.

Peter Hind, InTEP manager with research company IDC, says many projects fail because they're managed part-time by people with no formal training in project management. Objectives are often not clarified and there is frequently no business sign-off. "The project office formalises everything and is really the custodian of all the projects the company does. It determines who does what and the methodologies to be used," he says. "Projects don't proceed unless they get a business sponsor, and the business sponsor is responsible for driving it on the steering committee. The project office oversees all that."

The notion of the project office is fairly new in Australia, but experts say there are many advantages: from ensuring the organisation isn't doubling up on resources to an enhanced ability to set priorities and concentrate on critical projects. Project offices can provide standard tools and methodologies, not to mention reporting. They provide team support and use project management toolkits to collect information to provide a global view of the IT project portfolio and human resources.

Once they have built up their profiles, project offices can give the organisation an historical view of project estimates versus performance, to make it easier to identify exactly where projections part with reality. Although the approaches vary, some staffs see their project offices as centres of excellence for project management.

Handled well, an effective project office can provide a useful reality check on project ambitions, matching desired goals against staff levels and limitations on time and budgets. It helps the organisation prioritise projects and makes it easier to justify calls for extra staffing, funding or time extensions by backing these up with hard data. That means organisations can bring more resources to bear on critical or strategic projects, confident they are more likely to be brought in on time and on budget.

Frank Liebeskind, general manager IM with marketing loyalty rewards company Pinpoint, says it's important to have a project office to develop standards for project management and reporting. And he says the project office should be involved in managing more than just IT projects. Indeed, it should manage every project -- from marketing launches to process re-engineering exercises.

Liebeskind established a project office for IT projects when he worked at MMI, then extended its reach to cover BPR projects. At the same time, MMI adopted the rapid development methodology (RDM), then integrated its project management methodology. Liebeskind says the focus of the RDM was an empowered team consisting of a business unit group led by a business coordinator, and an IT enablement group led by an IT coordinator. The project coordinator's role was to manage those outside the team to remove roadblocks confronting the team, and to get information in relation to both the IT and business sides of the project to pull together for project planning and reporting.

"The project office adds value because it becomes the reporting arm across all the projects," he says. "Most organisations have multiple projects, and each project manager is going to have their own level of experience, their own idiosyncrasies, and so forth," Liebeskind says. "You'll never get comparable-type project understanding unless you have a project office that does those sorts of things.

Likewise, project people want to get on with the project and really almost don't care about the mechanism by which people are informed about it. So a project office is there to determine the standards. It can interpret the project status, then issue the project statuses to the agreed parties. It will also look for its own signposts of danger so [it acquires] almost an inspection function as well."

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