Practical Analysis: The Project Management Predicament
Telling your partner that you'll get to his request in four months doesn't go over better by showing him the other projects ahead of his in the queue.
Our survey on project management recently came out of the field with almost 700 responses. We aim for about 500 responses, so any time we get well above that, we know we've hit on a hot topic.
Respondents fell more or less into two groups. The first group consists of companies, like software makers and banks, that create complex products closely tied to IT functions. For them, project management is a well-developed science. The software folks will typically talk about waterfall vs. Agile development, and the large, complex banks and other organizations talk about Six Sigma and devote whole departments to project management. Then there are the rest of us--the second group.
For those who haven't spent years (or decades) honing their process and philosophy, project management is usually one of the worst points of friction between IT and the rest of the business. It's a particularly acute pain for businesses growing past the small-and-midsize-business phase, where most leaders are aware of and agree on the company's priorities but where competing goals and IT timelines need to be agreed to and managed by leaders inside and outside of IT.
Project management is also a sticking point for midsize companies growing through acquisition. One of the "scales of efficiency" often used to justify an acquisition is eliminating redundancies--such as two IT departments. That can easily take an IT team that's doing a good job of serving the needs of the business and turn it into one that's under-resourced and ill-equipped to handle what inevitably will be lots of competing needs coming from different company divisions.
In our survey, the most common complaint was that while IT is doing its best to implement a project management system, executives and line-of-business managers aren't particularly supportive of the effort. While that's frustrating for IT leaders, it's not too hard to see why their business counterparts are ambivalent. Telling your LOB counterpart that you'll get to his request in four months doesn't become more palatable by showing him the list of other projects ahead of his in the queue. And if you're like most IT managers, you've already tried asking (sarcastically) which 50 projects he'd like to kill to move his to the front of the line. This approach doesn't work; it makes you feel better for only a minute or two, then it's back to reality.
The problem is rarely project management per se, but rather the management of the entire portfolio. The bottom line is that IT organizations can't do portfolio management by themselves. It must be done in coordination with both executives (who need to understand and accept just how resource-constrained you are) and with LOB managers (who need to understand the other projects competing for resources as they help set priorities).
Even if you manage to achieve cooperation from senior management and business partners, and you have systems in place that let them see your project portfolio, don't expect them to stand for long project delays any more than you'd welcome an eight-hour airport delay.
IT is tremendously expensive, and when it causes significant delays to important projects, no one is happy.
Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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