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The ingredients of project success

What do airline pilots, a chef, a magician and a doctor have in common? Techniques that lead to success.

Over the past five years, I've interviewed several highly successful professionals outside the IT field, including a chief of anesthesia, several airline pilots, a fire chief, a chef and a magician. I always begin by asking, "What are the keys to your success?" Most of the responses center on six prerequisites for success that are important considerations in any project but are often overlooked in the IT space.

Process. One hallmark of success is process, examples of which include the doctor's pre-op patient examination, the pilot's preflight check and the chef's proven recipe. Having access to a well-defined process significantly improves the odds that a project will be completed successfully. Therefore, it is important that your project managers diligently follow a robust project management process. Yet a survey of 175 IT organizations by the Center for Project Management reveals that 51% don't have a well-defined process in place to separate half-baked ideas from viable projects, and 78% don't have a process to identify and kill troubled projects.

Skills. To be successful, your project managers must develop the necessary skills in such areas as estimating, scheduling, risk management, communication, stakeholder management and leadership. Our survey reveals that 38% of project managers do not have the skills to manage projects effectively. As CIO, your responsibility is to ensure that your project managers are appropriately skilled.

Techniques. Successful professionals pride themselves on their tricks of the trade: A chef flips an item in a pan with a light twist to the handle; a magician does a false shuffle and forces a certain card. In IT projects, some managers have mastered the art of building slack into scheduling or of building consensus among diverse groups. The mentoring and coaching of project managers by CIOs is crucial to project success.

Tools. Tools can expedite the process and create greater precision. But tools are helpful only if an organization has a process in place for project managers to develop the requisite skills. My experience shows that providing high-performance tools -- such as portfolio management for managers who lack knowledge of portfolio design -- is a waste of resources.

Accountability. How accountable are your project managers? Accountable project managers understand their responsibilities and work to achieve project objectives. Accountability also means that project managers are forthright in reporting the progress of their projects. And when problems occur, they don't resort to finger-pointing. (The ancient Romans understood this concept. As the capstone for an arch was hoisted in place, the engineer who had created the structure stood under it -- the ultimate act of accountability.)

Discipline. People often mistake discipline for inflexibility. Discipline is behavior that leads to self-control, organization and efficiency. Discipline also means the absence of chaos. The fire chief, airline pilots and chief of anesthesia discussed the importance of discipline at length. They noted that poor discipline invariably leads to out-of-control fires, unsafe flights and loss of life. It is important for CIOs to instill strong discipline in their project managers.

The seat-of-your-pants approach to projects is over. Judging from the billions of dollars lost on such disasters, it should be clear even to the die-hards that continuing on such a path is sheer folly.

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. Write to him at Note: This column originally appeared in the March, 2006 issue of CIO Decisions magazine.

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