Best Practices for IT Project Managers
Depending on which “shocking project management statistics” article you read, you’ll find failure rates for large IT projects range anywhere from 31 and 96 percent. Like a game of telephone, you never know what abysmal results consultants will reveal when surveying technology project budgets, schedules and objectives.
Regardless of the exact percentage though, the message is clear: Too many IT projects fail.
Project management vs project management for IT teams
IT project management is a nuanced and complex branch of project management. Traditional project management endeavors often result in tangible results—a space station is built, damage from a natural disaster is recovered, the Olympic Games are played.
But IT project managers must bring an organization’s information technology goals to fruition through detailed tasks such as:
- Upgrading networks
- Merging multiple databases
- Removing outdated servers
- Installing new hardware
- Deploying virtualization
- Creating new desktop images
- Developing custom websites or software
- Implementing business analytics or cloud computing services
Successfully merging multiple databases in order to improve customer service is not nearly as grandiose to the non-technical as a new product launch. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important. Although IT projects require the five process groups universal to all projects—initiation, planning, execution, monitoring and controlling—they are further complicated by unique business and industry challenges.
Why IT projects fail
When 36 – 91 percent of IT projects fail, such a wide percentage gap begs the question: Do a large number of IT projects fail, or do we only hear about the bad news?
Unfortunately, even if it’s exaggerated, IT project failure is far from occasional.
This is because in addition to usual project challenges, IT project managers are further plagued by shifting business needs and constantly evolving technology. They must address:
- Technology advances during the project’s execution
- Infrastructure changes that impact security and data management
- Interoperability issues, vendor configuration changes, and unknown dependencies between hardware, software, networks or data
- The first-time, first-use penalty which is the learning curve you must overcome when you do something new for the first time. There is almost always a first-time first-use scenario somewhere in an IT project, yet it’s often dismissed as a non-issue.
IT project managers should follow the best practices outlined below to overcome the complexity and variability of IT systems and reduce the risk of costly rework.
Develop a standard process
Establishing a repeatable method may seem like Project Management 101, and that’s because it is. Yet failure to follow a streamlined process is a common mistake that increases the risk associated with IT projects. If you have no baseline standards or defined phases to move the project forward, then you lack the ability to measure—and even define—project success.
A standard project methodology eliminates many issues that can snowball out of control later, such as failure to define project scope, necessary roles and associated responsibilities. Clearly defined project objectives and requirements lay the foundation for a realistic plan with effective handoffs between teams and work phases—which leads to a successful project. If your problem isn’t defined, then you can’t create a project that project solves it.
Reinforce your process
Once you have a streamlined workflow, invest in technology and IT software that bolsters it. Project management tools help centralize all project-related information, which increases visibility across the project, and provides valuable historical data.
These systems help IT project managers and team leaders see what everyone is working on, so they know if a project is moving forward, or if additional tasks can be assigned. This visibility also increases communication and keeps everyone focused on a common goal. Analytics and simple data visualizations help show important project information as it happens, so teams can immediately take corrective action if a project veers off course.
When project details are spread across multiple spreadsheets, apps, and inboxes, it leads to conflicting data, inaccurate information, and status reports that are outdated as soon as they’re pulled. Project management software provides a single source for information, which not only helps monitor current initiatives, but can be used to accurately document progress and lessons learned, which improves resource planning for future projects.
Hire the right people
You need a team capable of executing your project plan; no amount of planning or technology will overcome a shortage of necessary skills. Again, the right project management platform can help provide visibility into the skills and workloads of your team, and also help evaluate performance and assess skills for future work. If you don’t have the necessary skills available, considering outsourcing or hiring a consultant to contribute to the project. Another option is to reallocate resources to a different initiative, while you search for IT staff to add to your in-house team.
Companies often rely on technology to gain a competitive edge. But pressure to cut costs or meet strict deadlines can lead to unrealistic project expectations, and ultimately failure. A rushed software implementation can result in lack of user adoption, loss of business if rolled out during a busy season, and inadequate system testing. It’s an IT project manager’s job to push back on unreasonable deadlines or scope and clearly communicate the associated risks to project stakeholders.
Maintain core competencies
Above all else, it’s critical that IT project managers stay up to date on the essential project management knowledge areas: scope, schedule, costs, quality, HR, communications, risk, procurement, stakeholder, and integration management. Aside from procurement, these are present in all IT projects, so managers should be prepared to shift to the competency that is analogous to the project’s current needs.
Don’t contribute to the latest shocking project failure rates. Follow these best practices to successfully handle the complexity and variety of IT initiatives.
Here’s another important skill to master when you’re managing technical projects: being able to make accurate project estimates. It’s an art, a science; it takes practice and trial-and-error. If you can get it right, you’ll be the star of your organization. To learn more, download our eBook, “5 Best Practices for Accurate Project Estimates.”