16 steps to surefire IT project success

Deft project management requires just the right blend of book smarts and street smarts

Beau Lark

16 steps to surefire IT project success

Mastering project management is no easy feat. After all, no matter the size, there is no such thing as an "easy" project when it comes to IT.

Outsize expectations, shifting requirements, conflicting personalities -- surviving the project you've just been thrown in front of as a project lead doesn't exactly require mastery. It requires a deft combination of book-smart techniques and street-smart problem-solving.

Here's what you need to know to not only survive but thrive in your next project management assignment, as adapted from my best-selling book "Bare Bones Project Management."

Book smart: Follow the 7-by-6 rule

The longer the IT project and the bigger the team, the more likely it is the project will fail.

Make the project too long, and there's no sense of urgency. Make the team too big, and it's too easy for team members to hide behind the herd.

No matter how big the effort, you can break it up into projects that don't violate the 7-by-6 rule: 7 core team members, 6 months or less. That's projects, not phases. The difference: If a phase goes long, the team can figure they'll make the time up in the next phase. If a project goes long, it's just plain late.

Book smart: Business sponsorship is a must

For your project to have a chance of success, it has to have a business sponsor. Without one, it ceases to be a project in every sense of the word.

If you're considering launching a project you feel is vital to the business, get a business sponsor on board right away. Resource allocation, business priority, team confidence -- it all starts with someone at the top, championing the project to those who ultimately ensure the results will be implemented.

Street smart: Avoid SINOs

Of course, for your project to have a real chance of success it has to have more than a sponsor in name only (SINO). It needs a business executive who:

  1. Personally wants it enough to take risks on its behalf
  2. Has the authority to commit time, budget, and staff as needed
  3. Has the authority and willingness to decide when the project is done

One more thing: Your sponsor had better be your partner in this, not someone who's there to provide oversight. Project managers need support, not supervision.

If your project doesn't have a real business sponsor -- not a SINO -- run away or hide under your desk. Whatever you do, don't accept the assignment; it's doomed.

Book smart: Never forget that work products are tangible

As project manager, you're accountable for delivering the project's work products on time and within the original budget. That's it.

What's a "work product"? It's something tangible the project created. If you can't point to it and say, "See? It's right there!" then it isn't a work product.

Street smart: Connect the dots to the bottom line

Your sole official responsibility might be limited to delivering the project's work products, but if you can't connect the dots to the bottom-line value your project was chartered to deliver, don't accept the assignment.

Assuming you can connect the dots, do everything you can to make sure the bottom-line value actually happens. If it doesn't, guess who will be left holding the bag when things don't pan out the way they were supposed to.

Book smart: Ensure everyone on board is fully committed

This is textbook: Project team members are supposed to be assigned solely to your project, working on nothing else unless they have nothing to do for you.

This is, by the way, the not-at-all-dirty secret to the success of IT services firms: When they take on a project, by contract their projects can always be fully staffed.

Internal IT? Not a chance, because everyone needed for the project has other responsibilities too, and those don't go away just because someone has been assigned to a project.

Street smart: Insist on full attention when full commitment can’t be met

You won't get dedicated staff. Instead, you'll get Jim, Jane, John, Jill, Jerry, Jeff, and Joan, each of whom is told to spend 20 percent of their time on your project.

Don't accept 20 percent. You'll never get it. Instead, get them 100 percent every Thursday. It's still 20 percent, only now, when they're yours, they're actually yours.

Book smart: Plan the work; work the plan

It's an old rule, but a widely misunderstood one: Plan the work; work the plan.

The misunderstanding? This doesn't mean the plan, once written, is instantly chiseled into a slab of granite, never to be altered until long after the sun burns out.

It means good project managers don't improvise. When something about the situation makes the old plan invalid, modify the plan so it takes the new situation into account. Then follow the new plan.

Street smart: Assigned tasks -- all the love your project needs

Gantt charts -- you know, the ones with the bars? -- are for management.

For actually getting your project done, all you need is a list of tasks that shows when each one is supposed to start and finish, and who's responsible for starting and finishing it.

Not really. It isn't all you need, because you also need to communicate to management. But it's all your team needs, which is what matters for getting your project done.

Book smart: Conduct launch meetings

Launch meetings serve multiple purposes. Of them, one stands out: They provide a clear demarcation in time separating "there's no project going on" from "we're working on a project."

Street smart: Context is a precursor to success

Make sure the business sponsor talks about the "project context," which is to say gives a cheerleading speech about how important the project is, not only to the company, but to him or her personally.

The project team needs to hear this. More important, it's harder for the business sponsor to duck and cover later on if something about the project goes sideways and some of the other executives start to question whether it's that good an idea.

Book smart: Monitor status every week

Getting status updates from team members on a weekly basis strikes the right balance. You learn about problems early enough to fix them without micromanaging.

Street smart: Meetings provide motivation

Conduct weekly project status meetings -- yes, meetings. If team members whose tasks are late just have to tell you via email, the only consequence is that you know about it.

But with weekly status meetings, they have to tell their peers face to face that they didn't get the job done. And as project manager, when it comes to keeping everything on track, peer pressure is your friend.

Street smart: 90 percent complete is incomplete

The mark of a pro is knowing how to handle team members who don't finish their tasks on time. Two tips:

  1. Tasks are either done or not done. On a task-by-task basis, there's no such thing as percent complete.
  2. When a task isn't done, know when to ask the magic question: "What's your plan for getting back on track?" When do you ask this? In the weekly status meeting, so everyone knows your expectation is that you expect them to have a plan for getting back on track if they miss a deadline.

Street smart: Nip scope creep in the bud

Two secrets to successful scope management:

  1. Nothing is free. Changing a project's scope isn't a problem. Agreeing to squeeze something in? That's a problem.
  2. "Syndicate" the decision. Don't let anyone make you the scope cop. As project manager, your job is to make sure nothing is free -- that if the scope changes, you get to change the plan. Whether to change the scope or not? That's up to your business sponsor or steering committee.

Street smart: Recognize and address the common causes of project drift

Three common reasons for project drift:

Perfectionism: There's always another tweak that would make a work product even better. Solution: Make sure everyone knows how to recognize when their work has reached the exalted state of good enough.

Sponsor jitters: Sponsorship is safe until the time comes to put your work products into production, changing how a department operates. Solution: Especially as the project gets close to the finish line, do a lot of sponsor hand-holding.

Inertia: Sometimes, projects drift because nobody knows how to say, "We're done now." Solution: Schedule a formal completion meeting. Call it to order and speak these words: "We're done now!"


Just plain smart: Celebrate success

Small projects are hard, and they get more difficult from there.

There's no such thing as an easy one, so every successful project is worth at least a few pizzas and a heartfelt thank you to the team.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.