Project Management

Turning around failing projects

It is not uncommon for companies to struggle with implementing technology projects. Even with good vendors, sprawling and complicated technology projects are difficult to execute. Many go off-track at some point and of those, many are brought back to achieve some level of success in production.

If you have a project go off course, how should you handle it? How do you avoid it in the first place? From someone who has done this several times, here are a few tips that I've found work very well:

Turning it around

  1. Bring in an unbiased perspectiveSomeone who does not have a stake in the history of the project should assess the process of the project and the status of the project. Have them provide input on the three main areas: governance, management, and execution. If the issues seem to be more with the design or architecture issues, then assess those as well. Maybe this person can turn their findings over to the management team or maybe they need to stay involved longer-term to ensure their advice is executed, but either way it's critical to take blame out of the assessment itself.
  2. Re-set the goal-line: There are always timing and budget considerations, but when a project goes off the rails you need to make sure to take a balanced view of your priorities. If the timeline is the most important thing, then evaluate how to reduce scope or add resources. If a business result is most important, be flexible with your timeline and consider adding resources to key areas. If it's a tricky design issue, allocate additional budget to bring in a specialist. It all depends on the project and the business priorities now - not necessarily the expectations that were established at the beginning of the project.
  3. Move to an exception-based project management methodMeetings will not fix a floundering project. Keep the PMO lean and predictable. Have a well-established and well-communicated project plan that is updated on the same schedule every week. Keep an issues and risks log which your people update as needed and the PMO reviews every week. None of this is hard in and of itself, but being disciplined about it often is.
  4. Repair the relationships: If PMs are fighting or distrustful of one another, they need to get on the same page. They cannot fight for the rest of the project and expect to be successful. If they can't get on the same page, one or both of them need to be replaced. Not doing so will sow discord and mistrust among the project team, people will take sides, and their decision-making will lean more towards self-preservation than successful delivery.

Avoiding failure in the first place

  1. Establish a steering committee: This should be comprised of senior stakeholders and at least one outside expert. They monitor the project on a regular basis and have decision-making authority and budgetary control over the project. They are ultimately accountable for the results.
  2. Don't skimp on project management: A lot of projects try to save cost by running a lean PMO. Lean PMOs are, in general, a good thing but many project go too far. On difficult projects your lead project manager needs as much hands-on management time as possible. Add a PMO analyst to manage the project plan and put together status reports, add the part time resource to manage the issues database, delegate go-live planning to another experienced PM. Don't make the lead PM be engulfed in day-to-day administrative work - they need to turn the ship around first and foremost. And don't make them a "working" project manager - big projects needed a dedicated PM.
  3. Periodic project QA by an outside entity: Do at least a quarterly review with an outside, unbiased expert. They shouldn't get too close to the team, but it should be same person throughout the project. They should report to the project sponsor and their written assessments should be shared with the steering committee.
  4. Avoid the blame game: Most projects go off the rails because one or more issues get hidden for too long. They aren't raised high enough fast enough and ultimately become either the long pole in the tent or introduce a great deal of uncertainty to other workstreams. Creating a project environment where someone who raises an issue isn't worried about taking a hit, and where workers are comfortable disagreeing (constructively) in meetings is a critical and often overlooked aspect of creating a constructive project environment.

With a steady hand and a disciplined project manager, most struggling projects can be turned around. When in doubt, bring in help. The cost of getting things on track quickly will be dwarfed by either Day 0 turmoil or a disastrous delivery.

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Table Stakes: Operational Keys to Success for the Strategic Advisor

This post originally appeared on my blog at CIO.com here

I recently had a conversation with a friend about my post on using big projects to become a strategic advisor in the C-suite. While he agreed with the post he talked about a recent large enterprise software project he ran and how the CIO damaged his opportunity to become a strategic advisor. It wasn’t because of inadequate attention to the strategic aspects of the project, but rather because of poor operating practices.

Many of us spend our time articulating how the CIO and other executives need to strategically plan and invest in technology-based solutions. What we talk less about are the core operating responsibilities of the CIO and how they need to use operational successes to bolster their position as a strategic advisor.

Big enterprise software projects are really hard. Panoramaestimates ERP projects fail around 72% of the time. McKinsey has found that IT projects that cost over $15M run over budget 45% of the time and deliver 56% less functionality than originally anticipated.

While these are scary numbers for the sponsoring executive, they don’t mean it’s impossible to do big visionary things and make a strategic difference for the company. What they do mean is the CIO needs to be able to balance being an operator and being a strategist to build and hold onto credibility in both areas. The trains need to run on time before you have the influence to build an airport.

With that, I will offer four keys to success for any sponsoring executive of a big enterprise transformation projects.

1. Achieve radical transparency

Do not hide problems. Openly report on risks, major issues, and how you plan to overcome them to the steering committee and the team from the start of the project. If there is an issue or risk that threatens to sink the whole project, you need to ask for help from the other executives – it’s their business too. If it looks like you may go over budget (fortunately you planned enough contingency), report it quickly with alternatives for how you will accommodate it. If you don’t have a solution yet, tell them and provide a date when you will.

 This sounds like motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of stuff, but it is incredibly important and frequently disregarded. If you are suspected of being a political player – hiding things that make you look bad and promoting things that look great – people are unlikely to trust your strategic recommendations. And if you don’t get the support the project needs from the other executives the project will almost certainly fail.

2. Make sure the technology works

Ultimately, ownership of the technology itself is squarely on the shoulders of IT. This includes the custom development, mechanics of the software itself, and infrastructure. Whether it’s an on-premise solution, managed services model, or in the cloud, IT needs to make sure the technology and its vendors are successful on Day 1. To ensure this, they need to be successful by Day “30.”

Do not underestimate what it will take to make it work well, get your people the training they need, bring in great people in key areas, and test it early and often. At the very latest, you should test your production infrastructure during user acceptance testing (UAT), which means you will need to complete performance testing even earlier than that.

Here’s the main thing: the technology is capable of working. It always is. If you hit your design and build deadlines, the technology will work. The technology may not work if you miss those deadlines. So push the business and your vendors to hit their deadlines and retain credibility by making sure the technology works when they do.

3. Keep track of the finances

Nothing damages credibility more than appearing fiscally irresponsible or, worse, indifferent. Project actuals and forecasts should be updated on a bi-weekly basis and shared with your project leadership (including your vendors’ project managers) and summarized and shared with the steering committee. I like explicitly showing the “change order” or “over budget” number and maintaining backup detail on the causes of this number in every leadership deck.

If vendors forecast budget overruns, proactively work with them to realign the budget. Be sensitive to the fact that if you only approach this by pushing for free time and deeper discounts, this will filter back to the team and likely hurt the project. Make sure all parties are working together to alleviate budget issues and nobody is taking the brunt of the impact.

4. Empower your team; monitor results

The only way you will have time to focus on the steering-committee, board-level, strategic aspects of your job will be to appoint strong project managers to lead each piece of the project and allow them to make decisions (and some mistakes). Good project management discipline includes robust status reporting, enforcing hard deadlines, and open and honest reporting of risks. Make sure these PMs don’t feel they will be penalized or shamed for every mistake they make, but rather when things go wrong they will have your support and the support of the project leaders to get back on track.

Finally, recognize that great solution people are often not the same as great project managers. Do not confuse the two skillsets when assigning your leadership team. Good project management discipline is what keeps big, complex enterprise software projects on track and is capable of fixing mistakes in solution architecture. Good solution architecture cannot and will not keep a project on its timeline. Keep your architects in positions of influence on the team, but make sure you still have good management around them.

CIOs are often in the best position of any executive to turn an abstract business strategy into real implementation. Make sure that once your strategic recommendations are adopted by the C-suite you have the ability to execute and retain their trust.

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