Keeping projects on course

It's a generic problem: organisations are spending ever more on IT projects without realising the desired benefits. Perhaps the answer lies in project management.

It’s a generic problem: organisations are spending ever more on IT projects without realising the desired benefits.

Perhaps the answer lies in project management.

An integrated project culture is not the norm within many businesses. Benefits promised by the business case are nowhere to be found. Decisions to invest are based, in the absence of anything else, on politics and emotion. No one in the organisation knows what projects anyone else is working on.

Consultant Sheryl Gavin has observed these unfortunate situations in most of a couple of decades in IT, having “done every job” in the industry.

Gavin, speaking to an audience of IT executives in Auckland last week, advocates the use of Benefits Realisation, a project management methodology.

Benefits Realisation, which Gavin helped install at Auckland City Council, covers three separate practices: portfolio management, programme management and project management.

The managing of the project portfolio appears the most vital as it sets down the decision process that evaluates, selects and prioritises new projects, while accelerating, killing or deprioritising existing projects. In the process it allocates or reallocates resources to active projects. The project portfolio should reflect the strategy of the organisation.

“You’re in a problem space without portfolio management,” says Gavin. Without it an organisation can have too many projects and be unable to kill them or deny their birth, the quality of execution suffers, risks and costs will be underestimated, and projects will not reflect anything near strategy aims. They could be over budget and late, and worst of all, the business could start to lack confidence in IT.

Programme management is all about delivering benefits (“concept to cash”), while project management is about delivering capabilities (“design to delivery”). The key to success is sticking to the principles of Benefits Realisation.

At Auckland City, a “decision board” of executives makes the hard calls, while an independent “value management office” helps project sponsors prepare a business case. The project manager at the coalface reports to the programme manager, who reports to the sponsor. Every major project at Auckland City goes through a process called “the results chain”, which nails down outcomes, accountability and measurement.

(Getting such precise information out of people along the chain takes time, admits Gavin with a smile.)

This may all sound like micromanagement, bureaucracy gone mad and a huge increase in staff responsibilities, but Gavin says not. Only one project manager was added and existing staff for the most part took on the board roles. Moreover, not every upgrade or minor development needs to be backed by a business case. And despite all the methodology tools, there’s still a place for experienced judgement, says Gavin.

The benefits are potentially huge, she says, though they don’t come automatically or without corrective action usually being required. They include — that IT manager’s holy grail — a blended programme of change for people, IT, process and structure. But benefits must be measured from day one until even after the project governance structure has been removed. And don’t put too much stress on ROI, says Gavin.

Auckland City CIO Ian Rae, who was present as the gathering, adds that the system also relieves pressure from him. Which is surely every IT director’s aim in life.

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