IT project managers: The quick and the dead

What used to matter most in IT project management -- cost and quality -- now ranks below speed, capacity, and adaptability

It's going to come down to project management.

Forget what you thought you knew about the subject. Thanks to the maneuver warfare that modern business has become, it's now the single most important discipline in the enterprise. And it's been stood on its head. Cost and quality are no longer your priorities; nowadays it's all about flexibility and speed.

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The cost-conscious approach to IT

Once upon a time in the subset of business known as IT, we thought there was such a thing as an IT project. We were wrong, of course, but we had a lot of company.

Just to make sure we're talking about the same thing: A project is a collection of tasks involving multiple individuals and organized to deliver tangible products within a specified time period. Responsibilities that are undertaken by one person, deliver nothing tangible, or have no deadline may exhibit projectlike properties, but they aren't projects.

To improve any business function, including project management, you have to know what "improve" means. You have to rank the following six parameters in order of importance: fixed cost, incremental cost, cycle time, throughput, quality (absence of defects), and excellence (in this context, flexibility and adaptability). As a practical matter, once you've ranked the top three, you're done. Do what you can to improve those, and let the others take care of themselves.

Traditionally, so-called IT projects emphasized incremental cost, fixed cost, and quality. In other words, keep the cost per unit of work low (however you measured a unit of work), keep project management overhead low, and by the way, keep the bug count down if you can. Cycle time, throughput, and excellence were left to their own devices -- at least until now.

Projects: Agents of change

Putting project management into its proper context is essential, given the new IT mandate.

In any business, work falls into four broad categories:

  • Operations, which takes care of what makes the company money right now.
  • Support, which includes everything needed so that operations can do its job.
  • Incremental change (aka enhancements), which enables the company to improve at what it does.
  • Projects, which enable the organization to do something it wasn't capable of before.

If we lived in a world where nothing ever changed, projects wouldn't merely be unnecessary -- they would be illegal. After all, at the end of every successful project, something new has been created, and the world isn't quite the same.

But as you might have heard, here on Earth change happens all around us. If a business can't keep up -- if it can't change at least as fast as its competitors do -- the outcome is inevitable.

OODA loops: The maneuver warfare of business

This brings us to Colonel John Boyd and his signature invention, the OODA loop, which is the key to success in maneuver warfare, including the version we call business competition.

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