No matter how much preparation goes into an IT project, IT directors know to expect a degree of unpredictability. A number of variables, often beyond the control of an IT function, can shift the lifecycle of a project so that even the most well thought-out project has the potential to run over budget or over time.
The good news is that poor delivery is by no means inevitable. By actively managing risk over the course of a project and by addressing any negative issues as they arise, projects can be successfully delivered on time and to budget - even if there has been a period of instability.
So what steps should IT directors take when problems arise?
First, they should signal any difficulties to other senior management as early as possible. Communicate in plain language and explain how the changing agenda will impact upon the business. This means that instead of saying, "Version 2 of the application will be late," you could say, "We are experiencing a delay in the human resources system and this means that staff will not be able to change personal details online, but we have put the following steps in place to advise staff of alternative processes."
It is vital to work in collaboration with senior management to review the programme and any difficulties. This may involve evaluating whether you have the right people in place to deliver the project, or whether the team is really focused on delivering the business requirements.
An action plan should then be agreed with senior management, including setting out a new timeline and/or revised budget with realistic milestones underpinned by engineering and business common sense.
If the board already has high visibility of IT projects, these steps are a lot easier to implement. By providing regular updates to the board with the delivery status, expectations can be managed effectively and panic situations can be avoided. Ensuring that IT has a voice on the board will pay dividends in the long run.
But it is not just with the board that the need for open and transparent communication is vital. It extends to the relationship between an IT director and a technology partner.
For example, I was once involved in delivering a financial payments system to a central bank. The requirements for the system changed constantly and it began to look as if costs would over-run. Instead of referring back to the contract or consulting the lawyers, the IT director of the bank asked how we could address the issues and move forward together. We agreed new joint objectives and reviewed the progress towards these new goals on a weekly basis. Stability quickly returned and we were able to deliver the project on time against an agreed revised budget.
You cannot expect to turn a project around overnight and there are no hard or fast rules for how long the process will take. A multi-million pound change management programme will take longer to get back on track than a straightforward IT upgrade.
All complex projects with IT at their heart carry a level of risk. It is therefore vital to have a clear risk management plan in place. By implementing an approach that combines clear communication, regular reviews and swift action you can minimise the risk of projects becoming derailed and avoid extra stress into the bargain.
Steve Tyler is UK programmes director of IT projects at LogicaCMG