The do's and don'ts of project management

ACN presents the top tips for successful project management - how to pilot a new IT project from the drawing board to the desktop, and how to avoid the common pitfalls that cripple projects everywhere.
The do's and don'ts of project management
By Eliot Beer
Sun 15 Jul 2007 12:00 AM

ACN presents the top tips for successful project management - how to pilot a new IT project from the drawing board to the desktop, and how to avoid the common pitfalls that cripple projects everywhere.

Do:
identify critical projects

If your organisation is faced with a number of different project suggestions, pick the project which will do the most to further your IT goals to work on first.

"When it comes to prioritising projects, knowing what your business goals are and mapping the projects to these goals can tell us which needs to come first," says Jace Finman of SMME. "You could have a project which is extremely expensive and will take a long time, but wouldn't really help you meet your goals, so we would put it last - the cheaper, quicker, leaner one which gives us that 2% to 3% jump would come first.

"It's very easy to map that out - it's no longer a matter of opinion, it's no longer something that's in dispute. We all look at the goals and agree that this project gets us closer," adds Finman.

Do: understand the corporate culture, and manage the client's expectations

"Understanding the client's or business's corporate culture at the outset is as important as thoroughly knowing the client's requirements and expectations about the final outcome of the project, if the implementation is on a large scale," says Jayashree B, pre-sales manager for Columbus IT.

You should set expectations right during the initial planning phase – the industry is ridden with false promises. Engage in good-faith negotiations about what is achievable.

He says project managers need to know about the general working culture, employee attitudes towards new technology, and how likely employees are to accept new systems. This will help you plan the project effectively - and manage the expectations of the client and end users.

"You should set expectations right during the initial planning phase - the industry is ridden with false promises and expectations. Engage in good-faith negotiations with customers and managers about what is realistically achievable," adds Jayashree.

Do:develop a crisis communication plan

Putting together a crisis and risk management plan at the start of a project will help eliminate confusion, improve clarity and transparency and win trust and confidence during difficult situations.

"This proactive approach, if handled with diplomacy can turn a crisis into advantage, and gain the project a positive image in the eyes of the stakeholders," says Jayashree.

Do:keep top management actively involved in the project, and market the project internally

Make sure you keep senior managers in the loop throughout a project, and take their views into account - this will make it easier to overcome any reservations or concerns they have, and ensure the project is what the managers expect.

"Having top management buy-in throughout a project is key to resolving issues such as resistance to change, and in successfully countering the challenges when transferring ownership to the business," says Columbus's Jayashree.

Marketing the project internally will help keep employees at all levels of the organisation - especially the ones which will be directly affected by the project - informed and on-side, helping to forestall any potential problems of acceptance when the project is handed over.

Do:use satisfaction metrics to gauge progress, and use quick wins to keep satisfaction levels up

As well as measuring how far along a project is in terms of completion, project managers need to measure if the project is succeeding in terms of satisfaction and delivering results.

"If you're further away from achieving satisfaction, it doesn't matter if you're half way through the project - you haven't made any progress from a business perspective," explains SMME's Finman. "I think in IT we tend to overemphasise the effort, the timeline was adhered to - but did we actually improve the service? That's the ultimate question."

Finman suggests implementing quick wins at the start of a project to help boost satisfaction levels while the implementation is ongoing - this will help offset any negative impact the project has on satisfaction.

Do:manage and develop the project team, and do frequent reviews

Project managers should ensure the project team remains productive and cohesive, by ensuring team members have opportunities for ongoing growth and development.

"You need to motivate the team constantly, by creating new learning and growth opportunities through specific training programmes, by expanding roles within the team - and by rewarding team members suitably," says Jayashree.

Holding frequent reviews throughout the team - and for the project as a whole will also help keep the project on track. Reviews should be done as frequently as possible - even daily.

Finman says: "Review duration always tends to be the same - if you have a full-day eight hour review once a month, you could have spread that over a five-minute review every day. It's just a question of catching those mistakes being made as soon as you can - if something happens on day one of the month, and you don't catch it until the end, you've already gone so much further that you've probably lost some money and lost some time."
Don't:don't underestimate stakeholder influence on project success

Stakeholders - internal management and staff, or external groups such as customers - can have a massive effect on the success, or failure, of a project. Project managers need to anticipate potential reactions from interested groups at the very start of a new scheme.

"Many projects in different industries get terminated as a result of pressure exerted by influential stakeholders, which could be media, politicians, organisation executives, or individuals who will become victims of the project deliverables," says Bassam Samman, CEO and founder of CMCS.

He gives a graphic example: "One Gulf government decided to combine utilities and telecoms in a single bill as a service to the community. When the same was released, the customers reacted negatively to the new combined bill. Within less than two months of project completion, the government scrapped the scheme and went back to the original billing system."

Don't: never give IT the impression there are unlimited funds

While IT always needs to give a business case, the business must never give IT limitless funding for projects. This will help ensure all projects deliver a return for the business, not just IT.

If you’re blaming the product, it’s more likely you picked the wrong product to start with. If you’re blaming SAP and you switch to Oracle – oops, failed again!

"There's always an overcompensation on the part of the business, to say ‘we've got unreliable components that are all old - let's spend $50 million to replace them all, so we don't have this headache any more.' I'd say never let IT have that free rein - always measure them against whether they're going to provide savings or revenue," Finman says.

Don't: never ask the business for money, unless it's going to save or make them money

The IT department should never put forward a project without a tangible return on investment - whether this is a saving, a new profit channel, or some other non-financial return such as improved reputation in the market.

"One of the reasons why projects fail is this lack of commitment or lack of understanding about why you're spending the money - people get excited initially when it's funded, but it loses steam over time. But if you have that RoI case from the start, and you've told the business that this is actually going to produce something tangible, then the business will be fully committed to the project," says SMME's Finman.

Don't: assume a project plan is final

"Project plans will always be subjected to re-planning to reflect actual conditions; remember that the best project plan is when the project is completed. This is very much true as project plans are based to large extent on assumptions and most likely situations," says CMCS's Samman.

Project managers should never count on the plan staying the same throughout the project - and should make sure they allow enough flexibility for any changes that might happen along the way. Managers also need to keep the plan up-to-date, to reflect any changes made.

"It's essential that the project plan get updated weekly with actual progress information, resources consumed and money spent. This will help in identifying trends in schedule and cost performance. Detecting unfavourable trends provide an early warning of a deteriorating situation creates an opportunity to do something about it before it is too late," advises Samman.

Don't: never blame the product

If a project fails, project managers shouldn't blame the system being implemented - it's far more likely to be the project itself that's at fault. If the product isn't doing what it should be, it's probable that the project team has selected the wrong product to start with.

"If you're blaming the product, it's more likely you picked the wrong product to start with. If you're blaming SAP and you switch to Oracle - oops, failed again! This time, both products are bad - so you move on to Microsoft Great Plains, for example. There's this lack of acknowledgement that you've failed from a project management perspective - you're trying to shift that blame away from the people involved, and to that product. Again, anyone can blame a product - it can't shout back, disagree with you, tell you you're wrong," Finman says.

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