5 Best Practices for Managing Large IT Projects
If you’re embarking on a large technology project, there’s a lot at stake. IT projects are technically challenging and can easily go on for more than 10 or 12 months. Team members are highly specialized and are often spread between different locations and across time zones.
According to a McKinsey & Company article, “Delivering large-scale IT projects on time, on budget, and on value” by Michael Bloch, Sven Blumberg, and Jürgen Laartz, the average large IT projects run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted. Some of these mismanaged projects can put the whole organization in jeopardy.
You don’t want to be part of that losing statistic. In order to get a head start and be successful in managing a large-scale IT venture, here are five important considerations to put into action when leading a technical project that has a lot at stake for a lot of people.
Have a strong technical lead
Large technology projects are complex and often require that multiple technologies and components are designed and integrated into a tailored solution. Such projects contain a lot of uncertainty and rarely go according to plan as new information emerges throughout the project’s lifecycle. In order for the project to be successful, you must have access to a strong technical lead who you can rely on to manage this complexity. Without a strong technical, lead the project’s foundation will be weak; and you, as the project manager will be forced to make decisions and plan the project based on poor information.
Consider the following questions when choosing a strong technical lead:
- How strong is the technical lead on your current project?
- Does the person have a track record of successfully managing challenging technical solutions?
- If not, what can you do to mitigate this risk?
- To what extent are you able to influence who gets selected as technical lead?
Have a solid project management process in place
Because large IT projects are risky, complex and carry a significant budget, they require a more structured project management process than smaller projects. I coach many project managers who improvise when it comes to project management processes. As a result, they end up firefighting and dealing with the fallout of poor planning. On a large project you’ll lose control very quickly if you’re not sufficiently structured.
To succeed at managing your IT project, have an agreed method for defining requirements, estimating and planning work, identifying and managing risks, escalating issues, managing changes and reporting progress. Better yet, have project management software that works for your organization and the needs of your clients. You can’t rely on chance or goodwill to get through a complex project.
Questions to consider:
- Are your project management processes sufficiently defined?
- Does your project management platform or process help your team manage all the complexities of a large IT project?
- Have you validated the project management processes with your colleagues?
- Have you learned from similar projects in the past?
Agile has been a buzzword for several years and has even spread to industries outside of technology circles where Agile was first invented. Many managers are keen to jump onto the Agile bandwagon and to switch from a Waterfall to an Agile delivery method. But the question isn’t whether your project should be Agile or not. That’s like asking if you should live in a skyscraper in the city or a farmhouse in the countryside without considering all the options in between!
Whereas some IT projects will benefit from making use of Agile practices, many are simply too large to be fully Agile. It’s more useful to ask how flexible your approach should be. The traditional Waterfall methodology can be risky, as the customer only gets to see and interact with the product at the end of the project. With Agile’s iterative development, you split the project into discrete phases that each conclude with a tangible deliverable. It’s a great way to manage complexity for large IT projects that aren’t suited to a fully Agile structure.
Questions to consider:
- In which ways are you moving away from a Waterfall methodology and allowing for a flexible approach?
- How many phases will your project consist of and in which ways will you deliver your product incrementally?
- Which method works best for your organization and your customers’/clients’ needs?
Be impeccable with system integration testing
Multiple components need to be designed and integrated on large technology projects, which means testing is always imperative. Some teams rely on their developers for testing the solution, but in reality no one is great at QA’ing their own work. The best option will always be a dedicated test team. Allocate time in the schedule for this essential activity.
On some projects testing is left for the users to carry out, but the result can be detrimental as the users reject the product based on too many errors. User testing should be a high-level validation of the product rather than a system test.
Questions to consider:
- Have you allocated enough time in the schedule for integration and system testing of the product before it’s passed over to the users for validation?
- Does your test team consist of experienced testers rather than developers or users?
- How will you know when the QA is complete and can move on?
Have an approved decision-making structure
On large IT projects, the landscape can quickly change as unexpected technical problems occur. Decisions need to be made in a timely and effective manner; there’s really no room for hold-ups and for teams to wait for direction. You need effective decision-making at every level, especially since large IT projects means you’re probably working with multiple teams in multiple locations.
You can keep the decision-making process active by organizing weekly working group meeting(s) for team leads, in addition to monthly steering committee meetings for executives. The purpose of the working group meetings is for team leads and business leads to make decisions about detailed requirements and imminent issues. The purpose of the more infrequent steering committee meetings is to inform the committee about progress and for the executive sponsor to make decisions escalated by the working group. Many projects fail due to lack of buy-in and access to decision-makers. A locked down decision-making structure is one of the best ways to mitigate that.
Questions to consider:
- What is the decision-making structure on your project?
- Is it effective?
- Are the representatives empowered to make decisions at their level on behalf of their respective teams and business areas?
Large IT projects are too big, risky and complex to simply rely on the team to roll up their sleeves and get on with the work. These types of projects have to be particularly well staffed, planned, executed and quality controlled in order to be successful. Make sure you know all the considerations you need to think through before launching your project and during the life of it.
Managing resources effectively is another important skill when it comes to successfully leading large IT projects. To learn more, download our eBook, “5 Best Practices to Manage Project Resources Effectively.”