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The Fundamental Laws of Projects

The Fundamental Laws of Projects

Mere mortal project managers (the kind who work for you) cannot bring projects involving more than 50 people over the finish line without significant problems with time, scope or budget.

How to avoid big project nightmares while you're awake and asleep.

A few big, expensive projects have given your IS organisation a bad name and overshadowed all the other wonderful work that is going on. In the middle of the night, you have an epiphany: big projects violate organisational physics. Consider that:

Competitive industry conditions and basic human nature limit organisational attention spans to about six to 12 months - far less than the duration of big projects.

Most massive initiatives are an educated guess about what will move the business, with only a foggy clue about "requirements".

Mere mortal project managers (the kind who work for you) cannot bring projects involving more than 50 people over the finish line without significant problems with time, scope or budget.

Rarely are organisations able to digest big projects. It's time to reframe these projects as a series of smaller, $1 million to $2 million initiatives. To get your organisation focused on this objective, create a boundary rule that requires all projects to deliver value within six to nine months.

Once you are committed to this cause, you will have to spend some late nights figuring out how to get your organisation to deliver value within this time frame. Successful short-cycle delivery means that you have to address three key challenges: maintaining an unwavering focus on value, leveraging infrastructure that is already in place and getting a few senior people to tout the idea as their own.

VALUE FOCUS

You will gain a huge amount of leverage by keeping the initial project stages focused on delivering value - any way you can. That means getting the business sponsor to articulate the value proposition (using financial and operational measurements), analysing the value drivers, taking baseline measurements and conducting tests. You will need to cobble together some targeted solutions, using existing technology, so that you can find out what factors move the numbers and thereby "discover" the project requirements.

Back when I had a real job, as CIO of Taco Bell, my team simulated a field reporting system by crunching the numbers manually and delivering information in an online format to a few selected markets. We learned what the issues were with the existing data, what decisions could be made with correctly formatted and timed data, and what oversight was necessary to reinforce the desired new behaviours. By the end of this initial period, we had compiled value-focused requirements and a clear understanding of the risks involved. Our next project stage involved developing an enterprisewide solution in three months. Although it wasn't pretty, it supported the company for a few years while the necessary business process, management and skill changes were seeded in.

LEVERAGED INFRASTRUCTURE

Ironically, short-cycle projects require a long view of infrastructure. As long as you fund and build infrastructure on a project-by-project basis, you will be unable to accelerate project cycle times. Instead, build infrastructure in anticipation of the need. One of my executive coaching clients calls this the build-to-deliver strategy. You can do this by wowing everybody with a great strategic technology vision and building up a prepaid maintenance account to fund infrastructure enhancements or replacements. This "taxation" concept requires defining a reasonable level of funding based on some kind of a benchmark-industry or internal spending. For example, a public sector transportation CIO gets an automatic 17 per cent per year for every development dollar. Other companies might set a per-revenue unit level (for example, per car produced) for baseline operating expenses and then fund investments through measurements such as revenue growth, productivity or economies of scale efficiencies - or Moore's Law.

At the same time, you must make the best use of your existing infrastructure, even if it's not the slickest solution. Ban replacements and duplicate products - and see how well you can make it stick. Finally, some infrastructure is best outsourced. You convert a fixed cost to a variable cost by purchasing only the capacity you need from an outside provider. Keep in-house only the infrastructure that you can prove will serve the strategic and financial interests of the company. One of my clients did that with Web hosting and is on track to save multiple millions per year.

SENIOR SUPPORT

Finally, you can gain organisational support for a short-cycle strategic focus if the idea is not yours alone. Find an influential CXO willing to be the "bad guy", who will mandate that every project's business sponsor must commit to delivering value in six to nine months. It's in the sponsor's interest, after all. You'll look like a hero for helping the business side - even as you help yourself by getting away from endless, resource-sucking big projects.

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