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Honing IT project management skills? Become master of the obvious

Don’t you just hate it when something is so obvious you completely overlook it? It happens to everyone. And it happens to happen a lot when it comes to project and portfolio management (PPM), even among those with sound IT project management skills. Just ask Gartner analyst Audrey Apfel.  She specializes in all the P’s — project management, program management and portfolio management — and  she has some nitty-gritty understanding of the ins and outs of project management skills. But what grabbed my attention most in her recent live Web chat was the not-so-nitty-gritty stuff folks about to embark on projects fail to see and do. If this sounds like you or your organization, don’t feel judged; apparently there are a few things that happen all the time:

Your project isn’t a project. When is a project not a project? When it’s work. Plain old run-of-the-mill work — remember that? It’s the stuff you can do without a whole lot of planning and processes — and perhaps most importantly, without risk. As Apfel put it, this endeavor might need a team and a schedule to be executable, but whatever it is — an application release, perhaps —  it isn’t a project. Why? “Because we’re not worried about it,” she explained.

Your process is inflexible and slow. Well, those are two adjectives that nowadays should strike fear in the heart of any IT organization. But, Apfel noted, many IT project management processes exhibit both traits. The real culprit here is where decisions are made in the prevailing process model — at the top. You might be thinking, but of course! While top-down decision making does reduce the risk of making the wrong decisions, it also can bring the works to a virtual stop while you await that decision. This isn’t really the “old” way of doing things because so many organizations are still doing it. But if they want to keep up, Apfel said, they’ve got to get on board with the world of “change operations.” In this approach, guidelines are set to empower teams to make certain decisions on their own, making the process — hooray! — flexible and faster.

You’re putting the cart before the horse. Apfel insists that many a project management office would avoid failure if it asked this question from the start: What business problem are you trying to solve, and does everyone agree it’s worth the effort to solve it? Too often the “problem” is actually the sought-after solution, she said. She will ask a client what the problem is, and the answer often will be, “We’re standardizing our PPM process.” That’s a solution, not a problem, she noted, and that proverbial cart will go nowhere until the problem is identified.

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