If you are in IT, then you’re working on projects. It doesn’t matter what role you play in IT — be it network administrator, computer operations, help desk support or communications — your business has projects that need to get done and you’re expected to do them. And like most years, 2011 arrived with little tolerance for project failures. This is the year of automation and cloud computing, so there is no limit to the number of IT projects businesses will undertake.
And if you’re lucky, your business has a dedicated full-time IT project manager, but more than likely you have a person who wears many hats and one of them reads “IT Project Manager.” In either case, we’re going to review the top pitfalls that can cause many projects to fail or not reach their full potential.
The IT Project Defined
For the most part, IT projects are short term and designed to create or implement a new (usually better or more cost-effective) product or IT-based solution for your business. Often these projects are geared towards replacing old servers or systems, developing or implementing custom or third-party technical solutions. All projects, IT based or otherwise, suffer from three basic constraints:
- Cost of the project
- Time to test and implement
- Project Scope, or more importantly scope creep
Another thing they also have in common is that they cross over multiple departments within the organization and require clear and controlled communications between the groups involved. So instead of listing a “How-To” for Microsoft Project, I will discuss the real-world issues that we all have to deal with, how we can avoid these issues in our business and complete our projects on time and on budget.
The project failure points are not in any particular order. They are each crucial to the success of any project. However, I will start with what I consider to be the most important and often the most over-looked constraint to an IT project: scheduling.
PM Pitfall #1. Inaccurate Scheduling
When we sit down and start building a project, scheduling is one of those things that we like to pencil in. After we sit down with the SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), we try to solidify our estimated times for each portion of the project. This is where reality hits, and you really need to stress to the people giving you the estimates that they need to be accurate. They must be all inclusive and they need to be bound to the time frame proposed. And remember, you’re managing the project, you’re not performing these tasks, so you are relying heavily on these SMEs to call it like they see it and to put their education and experience to work.
PM Pitfall #2. Lacking Project Management Tools
Because this particular article is a comparison of project management applications, I’m not going to list product names. Instead, let’s just say for certain that most enterprise businesses would benefit greatly by standardizing on a project management suite that best suits their needs. Not having one will more than likely cause your project to fail, or at the very least fall short of expectations. So, get a project management tool.
For example, suppose you have a large project team of 20+ members. You handle projects that span multiple cost centers or some other outsourced vendors and freelancers. In that case, your business would want to consider choosing a project management suite that provides the ability to function over multiple, non-standard platforms and has a Web-based interface or online portal.
Feel free to list your favorite tools and why in the comments below. If you don’t have one, here’s a great project management tool list to start your search.
PM Pitfall #3. Assuming for the SME’s Role
Often when folks are new to project management or leading project teams, they are too embarrassed to admit their lack of experience in a particular portion of the project. For example, building embedded versions of a program or coding a Java function, you might think: Jeez, how hard can it be? Will it really take that long? This again is where you truly need to know your team and be able to trust their expert assessments.
You’re the project manager, you’re not a developer, software engineer, network expert or a licensing expert. The best you can do is be certain to provide your project team with accurate and clear expectations as they have been given to you by the stakeholders or project champions. Your job is not to know how to do their job: your job is to deliver the expectations to the experts and see the project through to completion.
With the right information, your SME should be able to provide you with a dependable, cost-effective solution in the expected time frame.
PM Pitfall #4. Being Too Passive
As I just mentioned in PM Pitfall #3, you’re not the SME; you’ve been charged with leading the team to complete a specific project. Often times, members of your team will have very good advice, don’t be afraid to listen, but do be afraid to let them change the direction of the project. Be the Alpha Male or Female — take charge and be assertive. If someone is not meeting your needs, remove them from the team. Of course, be mindful of your HR rules and associated policies.
Project management isn’t for everyone. Like Daddy always told me, “not everyone can be a leader, son!” And if you’re not by nature a good leader, then you’re probably not going to make a good project manager. There’s no need to worry about hurting feelings or to walk on eggshells around members of your team. This is business, people; we’re here to make money, not friends. So do what the role calls for and take charge and manage the project, not the people.
PM Pitfall #5. Making Assumptions
We all know the saying, Assuming makes an expletive out of U and Me. So don’t assume anything about your project. Walk through the project step by step with your entire team, communicate each step, and get sign-off on each one. Personally, I like to apply a little technology in project meetings by recording the proceedings on my iPhone. Later, I transcribe the meeting notes and email them to everyone included, and in some cases the stakeholders and other business members who were not in attendance.
The point to not assuming anything is that as project managers and team leaders we need to insure that everything is spelled out clearly and concisely for each team member. Before a meeting ends, call out each team member by name and ask the simple question: “Are there any questions or concerns?” Address them and don’t assume anything.
PM Pitfall #6. Failing to Follow Up
Often times, weekly or bi-weekly meetings aren’t enough to keep the project moving at the most effective pace possible. Using my project management tool, I like to keep each team member’s phone number listed next to his or her name. This makes it easy to call them just about once a day to follow-up with them on their status. I also like to walk from office to office with my handy dandy clipboard, poking my head in just to remind everyone of delivery dates and project goals for those team members who are fortunate enough to be in the same building as me.
I’ve found over the years that most project team members will wait until the day before or even the day of the project meeting before they actually perform their required task. This serious lack in effort leads to shabby workmanship, and this is not to imply that my team is lazy or a bunch of procrastinators. The fact is that each member of the project team, also has a full-time job with plenty of other obligations to meet each day. As project managers, it’s up to us to emphasize the priority of their assigned goals and follow up often to insure they are getting done correctly and on-time.
PM Pitfall #7. Allowing Scope Creep
Every single project I’ve ever worked on suffered from scope creep in one form or another. Remember to define the project specifically with clear goals. Understand the CTQs (Critical To Quality requirements) presented to you by the stakeholders and project champions and stay on target.
PM Pitfall #8. Having No Pilot Phase
My business’ quality master black-belt has been in the business for over 20 years. He’s very successful and very well respected. He knows what he’s talking about, and he always says: “Pilot your project like you want it to fail.” Pick the worst-case scenarios, pilot the project, and don’t be afraid to pull the plug when the it fails.
PM Pitfall #9. Having Incomplete Sign-off
I handle the project sign-off as if I’m preparing for a day in court. I want real signatures and real paper from each stakeholder and my project champion. Finally, after you have a signature from the project champion or senior management, copy it, distribute it to the team, congratulate them, celebrate the completion if you have a small budget for it, and be sure to file the paperwork according to your businesses file retention policies.