IT projects need careful handling in financial crisis

Priorities have to be sorted, says Frank Hayes

Think volatility is confined to the stock market? Of course you don't — that wild ride is now the defining theme of business for the foreseeable future. That means all bets are off when it comes to IT budgets, IT projects and how much cooperation IT will get from the rest of the business.

Budgets? You've been through this before. You knew that charming piece of fiction approved by upper management wasn't likely to survive the year without cuts. Still, you were optimistic. And hey, that budget lasted all of two weeks into the new fiscal year.

But now you'll be cutting, and cutting, and cutting some more -- just like the rest of the business.

As budgets go, so go projects. Each of your projects has a business sponsor, right? But now, any project's sponsor could disappear at a moment's notice. That might mean the sponsoring executive had to cut his own budget, and the project he supported no longer fits into his plans. Or the business sponsor could just disappear because he has bailed out or been laid off.

An empty office means no business sponsor -- and that means no projects.

And when it comes to cooperation, forget it. Everyone on the business side will hunker down, run lean and hope they just get squeezed, not strangled. The last thing they'll think about is IT projects.

Maybe that sounds tempting for IT, too. But don't go there.

Remember, IT isn't like sales or manufacturing, where results show up in easy-to-grasp numbers. Even a hunkered-down sales force brings in some orders, and a lean-running plant produces some widgets. They still justify their scaled-back budgets.

But if IT really pulls back from projects, it looks like we've stopped doing anything. We haven't, of course; we're still performing all those pesky operational things. But networks, servers, phones and applications that keep running -- well, that's just background noise to users. Sure, they depend on them. But they don't notice them.

Let's face it: Without projects, IT is invisible. That's not fair, but it's reality. And especially at times like this, we need visibility.

Then again, there's good visibility and bad visibility. It doesn't help if top management sees us burning money on projects that are about to be spiked. We need visibility doing successful projects.

But how? The standard approach is to suspend all projects that won't produce a fast return on investment. The trouble is, that prioritises projects on the basis of turnaround, not business value. Quick hits are great, but churning out trivial stuff will impress no one.

Here's another way: Pick out your most important projects. Now go to each business sponsor and ask what piece of his project will have the greatest value if you can turn it around quickly.

That's right: You're carving out quick little successes from big, impossible-to-deliver-soon projects.

But that's not all you're doing. You're also getting a reality check on each project from the guy who's best able to give it to you.

The business sponsor knows his plans. He can tell you if he's no longer able to support the project. Or if it needs to do something different. Or if it's more important than ever. Or if tweaking it will slash the schedule and boost the payback.

In short, in the midst of all this volatility, business sponsors can deliver visibility — visibility into the business that lets IT remain visible to the business.

And with that visibility, IT can keep delivering value -- no matter how wild things get.

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Tags managementproject managementfinancial crisis

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