Project Management Gets Lean

IT can't afford to do projects the old way. Lean project management gives a better picture of success or failure.
Tool Or Straitjacket?

Project management tools are hard to select and work with, they're not one size fits all, and when you find one that does one thing well, it seems to do other things poorly. Simple project management tools like Basecamp don't have the killer feature of timesheets. But to be fair, they also don't require users to spend five workdays learning their ins and outs.

Which project management tool should your company adopt? It depends on what you want. If task management and collaboration are important, new tools such as Flow may be what you need. If budget management is important, consider either a full-featured project management tool like Clarizen or, hell, just throw numbers into a spreadsheet if it's a simple project.

Bottom-up innovations don't come from 11,000 or even 1,100 employees moving in the same direction at the same time. They come from small groups of employees who are free to choose an appropriate tool set to execute on their vision. We're not saying there's no use for big project management packages like Microsoft Project or Métier's WorkLenz, but don't fool yourself into thinking that such packages will be the only source of project data or that the gigantic backhoe is the only effective tool that your little farm can use. The reality, according to our research, is that a variety of tools will yield the best outcomes.

Letting project managers pick and choose their tools goes against the common wisdom of having a standardized enterprise architecture.

But this, too, is an illusion. As long as there are people who individually contribute to a project, there will be different ways of tracking progress. If IT thinks that the way it imparts value is to put a straitjacket on these individual contributors, IT has failed.

"The complexity of project management tools only adds to the confusion of IT efforts," says Jeff Hasenau, a manager for T-Systems, Deutsche Telekom's systems integration and networks services business.

To which we'd counter, if you offer a tool at the right complexity level for the project or workgroup, you have taken a frustrated customer and created success.

The key, as with any enterprise system, is to hide complexity when you can. Ease of use leads to adoption.

If complexity is needed for a rich set of features, think seriously about the audience. Do all end users really need to log in to the big, honking system, or would it be OK for many to use something simpler?

By all means, project managers need power tools, and but avoid painting every employee with the same brush, and think before you inflict a complex domain-expert tool on someone who's not a domain expert and just wants to do his or her job.

The nature of business technology improvement projects means that you're never done. Continuous improvement means continuous attention to projects and sufficient resources to carry them through. It also means having the ability to fail fast and the ability to learn from that failure.

How often are IT projects delivered on time?

Jonathan Feldman is director of IT for a city in North Carolina. Write to us at [email protected]