In many organizations, says Thiry, the need to reshape thinking on projects sheets responsibility straight home to the CIO, who must focus the attention of CEOs or the business on benefits rather than time or cost considerations.
First off, that means meeting with key stakeholders at the project's inception and finding out what they will consider a success. Then, as the project proceeds, it means breaking the project down to enable early and phased delivery of benefits, concentrating first on "low hanging fruit", then marketing those early benefits to stakeholders.
"Take the case of the Opera House," Thiry says. "Obviously if you had said: 'Your solution will be delivered in 25 years', people would have said: '25 years is too late — I want something now'. But if you pace the benefits that you are delivering in a way that you can identify the quick wins, the low hanging fruit, and how you can deliver on those first, the stakeholders can see that they will get some benefits although not all the expected benefits early. Then even if it takes a bit longer in terms of time, and in terms of cost, they will accept that because they already see some results."
However, since clients or customers will inevitably change their mind, or have their expectations raised by the early delivery of benefits, it also means creating different levels of success criteria or expected benefits. High-level benefits will be more abstract, and not expected to change often. More precisely defined benefits will, on the other hand, be subject to greater change, Thiry says.
"One of the things in managing expectations is you have to make stakeholders understand the high-level expectations will be achieved in the long term. Now the low-level expectations might change, and therefore you can only promise to fulfil them if they can be achieved within finite time limits," he says.
And speaking of time limits brings us nicely to another concern raised by Fujitsu Consulting's Thorp: the dangers in allowing an obsession with time pressures to undermine your project. People cannot think any faster under deadline pressure, he says, and while pressure sends a message that the project is important because someone cares about the result, the reality can be very different. In fact, he says, all too many projects face pressure specifically because the product is not highly valued.
"Say you're a political animal in a company and you're looking around for a new project because you're a project manager and you see something that is on the backburner that nobody has been willing to take on because frankly, it isn't very essential," he says. "Well it isn't essential if you build it over the course of two years with 25 people, because its value is lower than the cost of two years of those 25 people. But if you — because you're looking for something to do to make your mark on — say: 'I'll build it in one year with six people', the business might think it a winner. So you start this project off under tremendous pressure to get a lot done in a short period of time with not enough people, and the reason you're under pressure is not because the thing is so valuable but because it's useless.
"Now you think that situation is so bizarre as not to be real world, but I would put half of all projects in that category. Years ago I would have thought if people were under pressure it was because the product is really valuable and people really care about it but my experience has been the opposite," Thorp says.
The answer, he says, is to use value metrics to evaluate projects to ensure the project owner is accountable.
"If some sales manager says: 'If I had this, I could double my sales', then you are going to stand back and say: 'Okay, double your sales'. If instead of that he says: 'This is essential infrastructure, I will be grievously inconvenienced if I don't have it', that is a value statement that has no accountability whatsoever attached to it. So we end up with all kinds of projects being justified as essential infrastructure as opposed to being justified by 'This will increase our profit margin by 62 percent or add 110 percent to our sales'."
Thorp says in some organizations project sponsors or team leaders are obliged to make a value statement and their budgets are adjusted automatically to reflect the assumed savings. Such an approach is not hard to adopt, and delivers real results, he says. It is just that most organizations have not yet become "super disciplined" because in the early days of software development the values were inevitably much greater than the costs, and any project anyone dreamed up was so obviously justified that it was hardly worth doing the maths. Now that organizations have built all the systems that were so obviously valuable that it was not worth doing the maths, they lack the discipline needed to reflect the new reality.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.