Project plans sometimes go off the rails. That's always been the case, and with the perfection of the human race nowhere on the horizon, it will remain true. But we can reduce the number of projects that fail.
While many factors affect project success, failed projects often stem from flawed plans that don't address basic constraints. When it comes to IT, plans must account for constraints in these areas:
Specialized skills. Plans must consider the availability of high-demand skills. One Fortune 500 retailer intended to rebuild almost every application in its portfolio. Initially, the plan appeared aggressive but achievable. Deeper analysis revealed significant staffing flaws. Nine key people (including architects and project managers) were each assigned full time to more than one project. Avoid this by checking staff availability against other project commitments, even if specialized skills are required for just a limited time. This sounds obvious, but it's too often ignored.
Culture. Plans must accommodate an organization's distinctive culture. A global enterprise with hundreds of small, autonomous offices failed to address field office independence when rolling out a corporate help desk. Field offices, which had always relied on overworked but responsive local IT staffers, saw no value in the new help desk and disregarded it. Finally, this culture of autonomy was acknowledged and addressed by giving local IT staffs the power to decline requests if the problems had not been reported to the global help desk. Project planners ignore organizational culture at their peril.
Delivery capability. Every IT organization has limitations imposed by infrastructure. One Fortune 500 food manufacturer decided to switch from a direct sales force to brokers, while simultaneously changing both its product mix and its credit terms. Unfortunately, its homegrown systems were old, inflexible and poorly documented. The planning team refused to include IT improvements, despite IT's protests. All changes were implemented concurrently, overwhelming the IT systems as predicted. Unable to take orders or ship products for six weeks, the company nearly went out of business.
Budgets. Plans that ignore budget constraints are doomed. One CIO was required to undertake eight major projects in parallel, though he lacked enough project managers. His requests to hire additional staff or to delay several projects were denied. IT staffers are now demoralized, developing a plan they don't believe is feasible; many are exploring other employment opportunities.
Flawed plans are often the result of corporate weaknesses. Management pressure is one of the most common weaknesses. That's what led Enron executives to publicly discuss revenue and profit plans that were eventually revealed as fraudulent.
Inexperience is another culprit. Planning teams need enough seasoned participants to ensure that schedules are realistic and that constraints and risks are taken into account.
Deadline-induced carelessness can also play a part. The planning team at the Fortune 500 retailer was under significant time pressure. As the workdays got longer and the deadline approached, communications among the sub-project teams decreased, and the aggregate project plan was not sufficiently cross-checked for inconsistencies.
Even aggressive plans can succeed if they are grounded in reality. But the bolder the plan is, the less room there is for error. Undetected planning flaws lead to failure.
Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners, which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com .
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