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Beware These Hazards to Functional Engagement in IT Projects

Beware These Hazards to Functional Engagement in IT Projects

We all know good functional leadership is key to IT project success, so why do we keep forgetting it?

This is hardly an untouched topic. Some would say it is a dead horse. It has been a popular topic because it is pretty simple and because the failures in this area have been large, public and expensive. But it isn't sinking in. I hear it from peers, associates, interviewees, interns, and I still read about it in trade journals.

Good IT leadership has many facets. But if you can get this one right, your projects will go more smoothly, your business partners will be better served and your project leaders will be positioned for success. To be forewarned, here are five common scenarios where you will feel pressure to skimp on functional leadership:

1. Just replace the home-grown system with a package — no need to involve the functional teams.

Enterprise platforms like Siebel, Oracle and SAP are not intended to be heavily customized. When going from a niche, custom application to Siebel, you need a strong functional leader to push back on every "Yeah, but" statement. They must start at zero and make the business justify every customization. Saying "no" to customization is bitter medicine for your business partners. They will make contorted faces and whinge [ital]ad nauseum[end], but it is for their own good.

While most IT professionals understand the serious pitfalls of customizing package software, the business teams will not. You must help the functional project leader to understand these pitfalls so he or she can be the first line of defence. Never assume that the end state can be defined in terms relative to the current state, even in simple upgrades. Businesses change over time. Needs change too. Make the functional teams talk about what their needs are. With the functional project lead playing the bad cop, listen and question everything.

2. Business leader wants it now! We don't have time to find a project leader.

I've lived through this one and it hurts. The scenario for me was a brand-new vice president who wanted a dashboard reporting tool. Eager to please and make an impression of being a "can-do!" person, I found it very hard saying "no", or even "wait". Now was not the time to introduce the new business leader to the elegant rigor of our toll-gate process. Now was the time to impress with action! I figured, what the heck, I know it is wrong, but maybe we can get in and out quickly, no strings attached. Eighteen months later we still had no functional spec and were still playing bring me a rock.

This is one piece of advice that everyone will ignore, but you absolutely should hold your ground with a new vice president and stick to the safety, predictability and quality of a toll-gated process. Heck, I know I have not seen the last time I will find myself at this perilous decision point. I hope next time I will still remember this lesson and do the right thing.

3. The IT person in this area knows the system better than anyone else. Let them lead the project from both sides.

While this is usually true, it makes a lousy reason for functional owners to check out of the project. If your company makes refrigerators, it is safe to say that the engineering department knows the refrigerator better than anyone. Yet you won't see businesses suggesting sales and product management and marketing do not need to be involved in new refrigerator development. In fact, it is a given that a business person will lead the effort and engineering will deliver the solution.

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