IT projects need leaders

Project management is not enough - in order to make real headway in the battle to deliver on time and on budget, we must look for...

Project management is not enough - in order to make real headway in the battle to deliver on time and on budget, we must look for leaders

Of all the subjects I write about, the two that attract most feedback are projects and leadership. Maybe there is a link.

Many people now believe that leadership has to be our top priority. And yet, as IT departments, we are still judged to a huge extent by our success at delivering projects. If we think about it, almost everything we do is a project, a specific outcome that happens from a team working together.

When I first came into IT, four out of 10 IT projects either failed to go in on time, did not meet the needs of the company, or cost too much. Business and IT leaders agreed that this figure had to change, and it has - it is now nine out of 10. Well done us.

Forget evolution, something big has to happen if we are to succeed in an area which has been a bane of our lives for more than 30 years. We could work on perception and argue until we are blue in the face that there is no such thing as an IT project because everything is a business project, or say the figures are inaccurate. Or we can do something about it, something radical.

Over the past two years I have had the good fortune to work across a wide range of companies and IT teams, and I am now convinced that we need to alter our fundamental approach to projects.

As I write this, I have in front of me a marketing flyer for a two-day project management course to be held next month - it is a sad document. Before I share my thoughts on this, do me a favour. Close your eyes and think about someone in your department who delivers on projects every time. Think about a person who you always call when the going gets tough, in the times of crisis, someone you know will never let you down.

Now think about the skills they have, the attitudes and behaviour they display consistently. I would imagine you are thinking of the following:

  • Communication

  • Leadership

  • Persistence

  • Inspiration

  • Motivation

  • Focus

  • Action.

The document on my left talks about:
  • Methodologies

  • Process

  • Prince 2

  • Bar charts

  • Reporting

  • Project management meetings

  • Software skills.

And there you have the reason why we are in the state we are in. To me, it comes down to one thing above all others - the need for project leadership, not project management.

Don't get me wrong, the second list is important, but not as essential to success as the first list. In other words, it comes down to the character, talent and person you select, over and above the traditional views on how to deliver projects. I say "traditional" to mean what we usually think - there is nothing traditional about Prince 2, of course. Indeed, thank goodness it wasn't around in ancient Egypt or they would never have got the pyramids built.

This mismatch between what so many people think is important and what really works continues when we recruit.

Too many companies advertise for project managers with specific technical experience, who have consistently delivered quality systems, and who really understand processes. When recruiting for a project manager look for three things above all else:

I ask people for the biggest mistake they have ever made in a project. If they say none, it's bye bye. The deeper the scars, the better.

Forget the project, are they looking you directly in the eyes when they speak, are they confident, is their head high?

Radical thinkers
If we do what we have always done, we will get what we have always got. Forget "out of the box", does the person in front of you think as if they were on a different planet? Yes? hire them.

No matter how much we whinge about how unfair it is to be blamed when projects fail, we always will be - it is a universal truth. We can turn that around by changing the way we run them, by appointing leaders instead of managers, and by giving them freedom to do what they have to do to get the project in.

David Taylor is president of IT directors association Certus

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