8 Ways To Save Your Next Project

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2007-12-17

Technology projects bare a striking similarity to home renovations. Both are surrounded by wildly high hopes at the start and often end up causing financial and emotional heartache. There are some new numbers to back up the unfortunate reality that many projects simply don't deliver as expected. 49 percent of organizations have suffered from budget overruns on IT projects and 62 percent have experienced schedule delays, according to a new report by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), an IT consulting firm based in Mumbai, India.

The study, which surveyed 800 organizations in the United States, Europe and Asia, also found that 47 percent of respondents have experienced higher-than-expected maintenance costs and 41 percent said IT projects failed to deliver the expected business value and ROI.

In short, IT projects are a chronic disappointment.

It's hardly news that technology projects are rarely on time and within budget, but the question remains: what more can be done? We thought it was worth taking a look at why projects are so likely to fall behind and where IT leaders and project managers could improve their performance—and therefore the likelihood of successfully completing a project with minimal cost and schedule delays.

Baseline created the list below with the help of Kent Crawford, CEO of PM Solutions, a project-management consulting firm based in Havertown, PA, Bob Laliberte, an analyst with Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Research, and Michael McCabe, a spokesperson for TCS.

1. Get your head out of the software

Most project managers spend too much time in their project-planning applications and not enough time doing the briefing and communicating for which they are solely responsible. You should be spending the bulk of your time talking to and corresponding with project constituents – your team, the stakeholders, vendors, consultants and key end-users. The "soft" skill of communication is integral to project success.

2. Plan and define as much as possible—but don't go overboard

A key component of project management is the thorough and meticulous planning of every aspect of a project, but a perfectionist could spend all his or her time in the planning stage. There's no way to anticipate every variable so at some point, you have to pull the trigger.

Project managers are increasingly using rapid project deployments and iterative models that have been successful in the software development world. These models are based on the principle that in some ways it's better to start the project and see what you're up against.

3. Manage scope creep—for real

Like a turkey on Thanksgiving, you can rely on the fact that the project you think you're heading for may bare only a passing resemblance to the one you end up with. With the increasing complexity of data centers and the Pandora's box of surprises once you get under the hood, it's advisable to game out and document the potential sources of scope creep. For instance, the team may want to take a different approach than planned, management may want to change, add or expand the deliverables or you may uncover a technical aspect you didn't know existed.

4. Don't be lazy with risk management

If you need 200 servers delivered at the same time for a worldwide mail server upgrade, it's not enough to know what the risk is if the vendor doesn't deliver. It's time to manage the risk by deciding ahead of time that, as reliable as your vendor has been in the past, there's little margin for error. Going with two or three vendors might be more complicated but in the end, it may save your project if only 20 severs aren't delivered on time instead of 200.

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5. Get a grip on expectations

Ask vendors and consultants for the best, most likely and worst-case scenarios and then use your own resources to calculate the aggregated risk so you can determine the probable outcome.

There are risk management software applications that can help you do the job. There's no way to guarantee that a project won't be delayed or go over budget, but taking off the rose-colored glasses will reduce the likelihood of extreme variances.
6. Govern with strength

Even with all the good work you did up front, problems and roadblocks will surely arise. Don't blow it when it comes to actually addressing the problems. To the degree you can, refer to the approaches you documented and discussed with your team. If planned properly, your team should be able to tackle the problems early on before they become major hindrances.

Depending on the event, governance may include gaining approval from management to sign off on project changes that effect the project budget or time frame beyond a certain point. For example, if changing direction means the project will cost 10percent more and take 10percent longer, it may be time to bring senior stakeholders into the loop.

7. Prepare for intervention

If your approaches are better in theory than in practice, it might be time to intervene with the project plan. Create an intervention plan before the project starts and communicate the plan to everyone directly and indirectly involved. The plan may include steps to take when adding resources, for assessing project-management practices and even changing the project leader.

8. Drive behavior to use the technology

Whatever you do, don't rest on your laurels when the technical aspects of the project are completed. Creating a plan to ensure that people actually use the technology you just spent 18 months implementing will serve you well. If you and your organization want to see your expected return on investment, make sure you have a hand in educating and training users.