“Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other.” – Bill Gates
With statistics regularly being quoted globally about the high failure rate of Information Technology (IT) projects, I asked a room full of attendees at the 2010 Maritime Access and Privacy Workshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, “Why bother since the failure rate is so high?” Technology leaders in my workshop responded back immediately with comments like, “When done correctly, IT systems do add value.” Leslie MacLeod, who is the Government of Nova Scotia’s Chief Information Access and Privacy Officer, went on to explain that reliable surveys find that IT projects mostly fail due to poor project management. This seems odd when you consider the pervasiveness of project management training, certifications and best practices.
So why are IT projects delivering less-than-stellar results globally, even in the developed world’s public sector? Why are IT projects failing in environments where policies and procedures are common and following best practices has become a near obsession? While other factors impact IT project implementation, the experience of participants at my workshop in Halifax supports the idea that quality of project management profoundly affects the outcome. Often, organisations get stymied by the complicated nature of project management. This includes the time and cost involved in developing project management professionals, and a lack of understanding the need to develop internal skills.
It is important to define what a project is and adopt the right approach for handling it.
One of my former managers, Salim Walji, Chief Technology Officer of California-based
ePolicy Solutions, taught me that project management is necessary for any work efforts outside of daily operations. Since one-size-fits-all is not the best approach, the larger or more complex the project, the more in-depth and formal the process should be.
Having effective project management skills within an organisation is crucial. Who else has your organisation’s best interest at heart? Some senior managers may argue that small organisations or those that heavily outsource services do not need internal project management skills. However, these organisations need them just as much or maybe even more to ensure that they get the most from their efforts or contracts.
Moreover, developing internal skills does not have to be costly or time-consuming. When faced with an IT organisation that lacked much in the way of formal project management skills and limited financial resources, Walji initiated an effort to train nearly everyone in his team. He found a consulting firm to offer on-site project management training. It was not to the certification level, but it worked well for ePolicy Solutions. This approach was also extremely cost-effective and it ensured that the entire organization adopted the right project management attitude. Besides the training, formal processes and procedures were developed and employees were educated regarding their use.
After years of teaching project management across the globe with various universities, my approach reflects the belief that organisations need internal project management skills. In addition to providing best practices-based services, outside consultants need to share their processes and procedures maturity model to enable their clients to sustain their project management capability for the long term. When it comes to consultants, project management engagements should be heavily deliverable-based. That is what we attempt to do at the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Otherwise, what is the motivation to finish on time or early if compensation is hourly based?
I have personally seen, as well as heard from project management students about how organisations become bogged down in complex processes believing that they must follow the best practices as taught although the organisation was not mature enough to handle all the requirements. Instead, organisations that deploy best practices understand that the theoretical processes work best when applied practically, corresponding to the level of complexity the organisation can handle. That does not mean dumbing down or simplifying the process. Instead, start with the fundamentals and build on them as the organisation becomes more comfortable with the process.
Project management is not just for the elite few who become certified professionals.
Executive sponsorship and engagement is essential to avoid projects ending up in the intensive care unit. Pervasive adoption of sound project management fundamentals in a practical manner will ensure success for IT and business transformation projects.