Why IT Projects Fail – Part 3 (Project Management)

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Jon Fullinwider

Jon Fullinwider

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!   In Part 2, I discussed the importance of Executive Sponsorship as being the essential foundation and cornerstone for project success.  The next area that becomes essential to project success are those tasks associated with Project Management.  Project Management is more than just assigning a project manager and a project team to a project.  Project Management is about assigning the right people to the project with both the business and technical skills necessary to ensure the successful delivery of the business solution.  Assigning the right people to a project is essential.  Clearly the Project Manager should be someone with a track record of past project success and should be someone from within the business unit that will be using the delivered business solution.  If the IT organization is designated the Project Manager, the project should be stopped as its likelihood of success is certainly jeopardized.  Key attributes associated with being a Project Manager are as follows:

  • Must have clear lines of authority
  • Must report to the Executive Sponsor
  • Must be a full time assignment
  • Must hold the project team and vendor accountable
  • Must control project scope and change requests
  • Must hold users and project team to the same level of accountability as the vendor
  • Must identify problems early and initiate corrective actions
  • Must be proactive
  • Must have the active participation of the effected user communities
  • Must have good communications skills
  • Must ensure the project is delivered on time and within budget
  • Must ensure that the Project Plan is workable and reflective of the tasks required to deliver the business solution

It sounds so easy!  Yet when projects fail and a post review is conducted to determine why it failed, all too often the blame is placed at the feet of poor or failed project management.  And to be fair, while there are typically other failure points that contributed, clearly poor project management is at the center either for not recognizing a problem and taking corrective action or allowing the project through scope creep to become something that it was not intended to be.  Managing the user community is as important as managing the vendor providing the business solution.

Projects don’t fail when the first milestone is missed.  They fail when there are successive failures at many levels and communication to the Executive Sponsor is not reflective of the actual project status.  It is amazing that when a project is seen from the perspective of a third-party, it is seen in complete disarray.  Yet from the Project Manager’s perspective the project is okay!  This is what I call “Project Denial.”  However, what it really suggests is that there are not sufficient metrics to measure project completion milestones.  Project Metrics will be discussed in Part 4 of Why Projects Fail – Project Plan.

It has been suggested that a good project manager is not a nice person.  A good visual would be a “bulldog with a bone!”  A good project manager recognizes his or her role is about moving a project to completion and while having a good set of soft skills and an appreciation for the Importance of working through the people assigned to the project is essential, it is also necessary that the project team understands that they are being held accountable for the projects tasks identified within the project plan.  The ability to measure success points is essential in knowing where you are and accurately reporting project status.

While there is certainly more that can be said regarding this topic, let me leave you with one last item that is essential within the topic being discussed to your success.  This is the importance of effective communications.  It is absolutely essential that the Project Manager have excellent communication skills (both verbal and written).  What you communicate and how you communicate will be critical to ensuring the project team and user community are on board and supportive of your efforts to implement a successful project.  You can’t communicate enough and with so many ways to get information out (i.e., verbal, report, web, etc.) it is important that you do not underestimate the value and role of effective communications.

The next topic to be discussed will be the importance and role of having a good Project Plan.  Within the next two weeks a new post will be placed to engage in this topical area.

Continue to Part 4, The Project Plan.

Thank You,

Jon Fullinwider

Former CIO, Los Angeles County, Retired and Govplace Business Advisor

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Jon Fullinwider served for 11 years as the Chief Information Officer of the County of Los Angeles. Prior to his position with the County of Los Angeles, he served as the Chief Information Officer for the County of San Diego for 9 years where he was responsible for all information and telecommunications-based services in the fifth largest county in the United States. Before entering public service, he spent 12 years with Rockwell International where he held several executive positions providing technology-based solutions to both corporate and government customers.

2 Responses to “Why IT Projects Fail – Part 3 (Project Management)”

  1. John,
    Everything you say is absolutely true and a necessary element in project success. However, I am finding a fundamental misconception regarding project management that seems to be at the root of most failures. There is a general consensus among most of the public agencies with whom I have worked that 1) projects can be defined and locked in at the Initiation stage and 2) that project management is a skill that all managers are expected to have and perform under the “other duties as assigned” clause in their contracts/job descriptions.

    Last year I wrote a white paper about the Economics of a PMO and two points I made in it are that projects are dynamic and by nature change as they evolve. There are multiple decision points where cancellation and/or significant revisions must be made. Cancelling a project because you learn that it is no longer feasible because of information learned during the process is not failure and project managers should not be afraid to recommend such actions if they are indicated.

    The other point I made was that as managers we all know how to write checks and balance a checkbook, so why do we need a Finance department to keep track of our accounting? I would submit that the same is true of project management. It is a discipline just like multi-fund appropriation accounting is and should have a qualified PMP to define and enforce good practices for project management just as we have CPAs manage our financial accounting practices.

  2. Jon Fullinwider says:

    Dennis, there is no doubt that having skills as a project manager with a successful track record will help in mitigating a project failure. And yes, I would agree that it would be nice to be able to stop a project in mid-stream when it becomes apparent that the project will fail or cannot be implemented as planned due to requirement changes or any other number of causes. The problem with this is that in government, there is not tolerance for risk. Elected officials who approved the project have spent tax dollars and the last thing they want is a headline in the local paper. As a result, it is essential that more up-front work be done to ensure customer buyin and that the requirements are fully vetted and defined. Typically, a project does not fail because of the technology, it fails because it was not clearly understood, there was no executive sponsor and IT became the entity that assumed the responsibility to move the project forward. At any of these steps, it would have been nice to cancel the project, however, project only get cancelled in government when there is someone to blame. My experience also suggests that while it is nice to have the formality of a PMO, it still does not prevent a failure if the other points are not addressed. Thanks for your comment. I am behind in articulating my seven points of Why Projects Fail and will get my next update out soon.

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