Project management needs to think smaller, faster

Rather than plotting a big project from start to finish before pulling the trigger, CIOs should get comfortable with doing shorter projects, focus on the customer and manage risk.

BOSTON -- If you're looking for the trend in project management, consider this observation about Toyota Motor Corp.

made by Fastcompany.com in 2006: "Toyota doesn't have corporate convulsions, and it never has. It restructures a little bit every work shift."

Project management is changing. Rather than plotting a big project from start to finish before pulling the trigger, CIOs should get comfortable with doing shorter projects, stay focused on the customer and -- here's a scary thought for people who need to be in control -- learn to manage unknowns until they are known. Projects and programs in the future must be smaller, faster and easier.

That was the opening salvo from Gartner Inc. analyst Audrey Apfel, to a roomful of IT professionals from the Boston area at a seminar on changes in project, program and portfolio management (PPM) practices.

Enterprise companies need IT to make a difference -- quickly, Apfel said. Gartner data shows that organizations will trade quality and risk for time. Speed is becoming the most competitive weapon companies have.

Reality check

About 18 months ago, Gartner surveyed some 200 PPM managers on their biggest challenges. At the top of the list were the things you might expect, like prioritization, roles and skills, and the business value of IT.

Listed at the bottom, to Apfel's amazement, was administrative burden placed on the organization.

"Yet when we look at PMOs that get dismantled, that implode, a lot of times it is because they basically annoyed everybody with the administrative overhead," she said, referring to project management offices. "The PMO had paralyzed their organizations."

Another fact of project management that sometimes eludes IT is that project success correlates with user adoption -- not those old standbys, being on time and on budget. Measuring success by user adoption is "not as much fun" for IT professionals, Apfel granted, because it's harder to quantify and, moreover, has typically fallen to the business to figure out.

But the problem with that attitude is that if business users don't adopt the project, IT gets the black eye, Apfel said. She pointed to another piece of Gartner data on success and failure rates of large projects.

"The higher up we surveyed, both in the business and IT, the closer we got to the CEO, the more they would blame a project failure on IT," Apfel said. "The line people use, including Gartner, 'There are no IT projects, they're all business projects?' Well, forget it, they're all IT projects, because if they fail, you take the hit."

Reining in the "lonely geniuses," befriending the "friendlies"

There is no end of business problems to solve. IT needs to find the problems that the organization cares about changing most, Apfel said.

"You've got to know what not to pay attention to. There's going to be a lot of noise, and some of it you're going to have to tolerate to make progress," she said.

Apfel described a client who had a "pretty effective system of stages and gates" for large projects. But there was a pocket of a few senior project managers who "really gamed the system," and everybody in the organization knew it.

"They were the rock star managers. They left total carnage in their wake, but they got it done, and they were rewarded for it. The head of the PMO called them the lonely geniuses," Apfel said.

The reformation of the PMO cannot start with these mavericks if the organization is rewarding them for that behavior, Apfel said. Instead, she recommends that you highlight the people who are following the rules and are quietly getting the job done, reward them and make the case that this is the better way to get projects done.

On the business side, start with the "friendlies," Apfel said, and take the quick wins. Go after the business group that is most open to talking to IT, that will give you data, that has visionary management rather than giving into the tendency to kowtow to the enemy. "You know what, the enemies will come along," she said.

Show them the money

A PMO office is administrative overhead. Finance doesn't like staffing administrative overhead, so getting people will always be a challenge, Apfel said. "Very tough." Gartner has found that even companies open to the idea of a PMO will put up with a new set of processes and new set of overhead for about a year. At the one-year anniversary, people want to know what they got for it.

Yet when we look at PMOS that get dismantled, that implode, a lot of times it is because they basically annoyed everybody with the administrative overhead.

Audrey Apfel, analyst, Gartner Inc.

"When you get that question, you don't want to be sitting there with a blank PowerPoint template," Apfel said.

But if you have defined the business problem, figured out a few quick-and-dirty ways to measure progress and set up a few initiatives against it, you've got your three-slide PowerPoint to show the CEO.

Apfel's points struck a chord with the audience.

Philip Cognetta Jr., vice president, enterprise product engineering at Iron Mountain Inc., said the data storage company was just starting a portfolio management discipline in anticipation of the "next growth wave." Governance and taking inventory of project demand has precedence for the moment over software technology to automate the processes, Cognetta said. A first step was to centralize all the project managers and appoint a director for portfolio management. "We're trying to not focus on tools first."

Terri-Lynn Thayer, deputy CIO, computing and information services at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said one of the most difficult aspects of project management at the university is getting the resources to do the job. Just knowing when people are available or might be freed up to work on a project is a challenge. Time-tracking is frowned upon in a university setting, where most people's workdays are self-determined.

Thayer agreed that funding a PMO presents another challenge. Communicating the complexity and evolving nature of most IT projects often falls on deaf ears.

Nontechnology folks tend to equate IT project management with the sort of project management used in constructing a building, she said. "But how many times do you build a building, and at the end the client says they want a car, not a building?"

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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