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Is Your Project Alive? How Project Managers Can Check the Vital Signs

Vital signs will keep your IT project healthy.

I recently met a friend, the chief of anesthesia for a major hospital, for dinner. His department is in the midst of a highly challenged IT project deployment, and he is upset. "Why don't the IT people give us a timely warning of impending problems?" he asked. "Our patient-tracking project went from 'everything is fine' to a complete halt within a week." He had scheduled 20 people for two days of training, rearranged vacations and hired temporary backup staff at considerable expense and inconvenience. "IT people need to monitor project vital signs and give their customers ample early warning," he said. He's absolutely right.

Race car pit crews, physicians and airline pilots routinely monitor vital signs to track the condition and status of their projects. Not so in IT. Ironically, the professionals whose fundamental tenet is to produce information for their clients often lack accurate information about the status of their own projects. By the time sponsors realize their projects are in trouble, it can be too late to take corrective action. To aid project managers and sponsors, we have devised a list of vital signs for gathering timely project intelligence. These signs are grouped in-to four categories:

  1. Strategic Vital Signs. These include strategy alignment, planned value to business, customer buy-in, technology viability, vendor viability and regulatory compliance. The focus is on why you are doing the project.
  2. Tactical Vital Signs. These cover the status of the critical path, milestone hit rate, deliverables hit rate, unresolved issues, actual vs. planned resources, high probability of success, high-impact risk events and cost to date. The focus is on how well the team is performing against predetermined project plans.
  3. Environmental Vital Signs. Here we look at the sponsor's commitment and the team's disposition. The focus is on the quality of the work environment.
  4. Operational Vital Signs. This last category spans the achieved value to business and operational performance of the installed project. The focus is on the finished product.

Based on project needs, the project manager consults with the sponsor and develops a tailored list of vitals signs from each of these categories, stipulating their variance thresholds. The project manager then diligently monitors the selected vital signs, each of which is assigned a status. Green shows that all is well; yellow indicates caution; and red means disaster is looming.

For example, in the case of the critical path, a variance or delay of up to 10% may be defined as green because team members can still close the gap. A variance of 10% to 20% is yellow. The project manager should meet with the appropriate team members and plan how to bring the vital sign back to green. A variance of greater than 20% indicates red status, and the project manager must meet with the sponsor to devise a recovery plan.

In addition to monitoring individual vital signs, the project manager must keep a keen eye on the net impact of collective vital-sign variances. Astute project managers collect additional project intelligence by walking around, chatting with team members and keeping the lines of communication open. Gathering project intelligence helps managers provide timely warnings to their sponsors.

If you are determined to improve the success rate of your projects, teach your project managers and sponsors how to monitor project vital signs. It will keep your projects in good health.

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. To comment on this story, email [email protected].

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