From service to strategy: the IT project management journey

Evolving technology is creating opportunities for the IT project manager to move away from firefighting and towards influencing business strategy

Historically, the role of IT in project management has been a frustrating one. Through necessity, all too often IT has tended to operate within its own silo. 

Vast amounts of resource have been injected into service delivery and troubleshooting. IT project managers have dealt with the ongoing challenge of resolving conflicting priorities, operating to limited budgets and meeting multiple isolated demands. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the role of the IT project manager is not easy.

If you set that history against a backdrop of widely acknowledged statistics, a worrying trend emerges. Standish Group, the British Computer Society (BCS) and many more have published evidence of widespread IT project failure. Only one in eight projects are considered to be successful in terms of completion, timing and budget compliance. 

What is more, these failure rates are becoming increasingly visible, particularly in public-sector and high-profile megaprojects. In February 2014, the Project Management Institute (PMI) published new statistics suggesting that project failure results in a loss of $109bn for every $100bn invested. The future, it seems, is not looking so rosy. 

So when a project collapses, where should the finger point?

All too often in technology projects, it’s the IT project managers who find themselves in the firing line. The job wasn’t done properly. The resources were not managed. The requirements were not met. Bad news, people: it’s all your fault. Or is it?

In fact, the aforementioned analysis performed for BCS by John McManus (Staffordshire University) and Trevor Wood-Harper (Manchester Business School), reveals a more complex picture. It identifies the main reasons for project failure as including: failure to deliver an aligned strategy, poor leadership from board level down, failure to map and address risks and an over-reliance on methodology alone. 

These factors, they suggest, result in delivery that does not meet user expectations, often resulting in project cancellation. Is all of this the IT project manager’s fault? From my own experience, I think not. Yet the chances are that when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan, you will still find the blame laid firmly at your door.

Now for the good news. Things are changing. We are seeing a rapid transition from heavy on-premise server solutions to new cloud and managed solutions, plus the advent of new and more comprehensive project management technology. This progress has the potential to liberate the IT project manager from much of the day-to-day service delivery grind, freeing up time and resources to input into the business plan at a higher level and an earlier stage.

More streamlined

As Sajan Parihar, director of product management at Microsoft, recently told me in an interview: “If you ask companies how much budget they have for innovation, very few of them will have any. But by getting better and more streamlined at what you do, you can not only create room for innovation budget, but also free up capacity to drive it. Ultimately, it’s that kind of thinking and focus on the next big opportunity that sets successful businesses apart.”  

Barbara Roberts, director of product innovation at the DSDM Consortium (a consortium specialising in agile project management and delivery), echoes the sentiment: “As we move forward, I would like to see businesses grabbing hold of their own projects and demanding to be more closely involved. I want to hear people talk about business solutions rather than IT solutions.” 

In other words, to achieve project success, we need to move on from a scenario where the IT function is discrete and separate, and look to a brave new world of IT as a respected strategy and business influencer.

There is a strong case for this approach and I feel sure it will resonate with many in the IT space. What if, instead of receiving a ready-made plan and being told to “make it happen”, you were invited to contribute right at the start of the planning stages? What if, instead of battling with multiple conflicting resource requirements and user needs, you had the opportunity to design a solution that encompassed the entirety of the business objectives? What if you had the opportunity to voice all your brilliant ideas at leadership level? Would this make a difference to project failure rates? I certainly believe it would.

Change management

This begs the obvious question: how can this change be effected? Of course, change management is not easy, and especially so when the change depends on those at the top. But change can be driven from both directions. 

The IT function, if equipped with a compelling business case, can be the driver of that change. The board, CEO, project leader or project sponsor, may initially and instinctively balk at the idea of transforming the status quo. The typical response may be: “Bringing IT in on strategic decisions? Don’t they have work to get on with?” This is a typical reaction, but it’s not impossible to get around.

Equipping yourself with sound evidence is key to getting your voice heard at strategy and planning level. The evidence I have already shared in this article is a good starting point and there is plenty more of it out there. Here’s a starter for 10: PMI’s research also shows that 71% of projects that are fully aligned to organisational strategy succeed. When this is not the case, only 48% do. Put that under your CEO’s nose and watch them sit up and take notice. 

Point them towards this recent finding from McKinsey & Company: “Based on our research and experience, there are three roles that are vital to the success of any IT programme and are most critical to retain in-house: IT programme manager, business change leader, and lead IT architect.” The IT programme manager, McKinsey suggests, must engage meaningfully with business leadership at all stages of project design and delivery. The business change leader must ensure change adoption, with all of the people and resource management skills this demands. 

Challenging proposals

The lead IT architect is responsible for reviewing and – crucially – challenging proposals as they are designed. It is encouraging that in a 2013 survey, also by McKinsey, 35% of executives surveyed said that improving the overall level of talent and capabilities of IT staff was one of the most important initiatives they were planning for the next year. You might be lucky. Your CEO could fall within that 35%. Regardless of whether they do or not, it’s important to demonstrate that involving IT in strategy architecture will not just develop talent on the IT team; it will also input significantly into the likelihood of successful delivery and therefore commercial gain.

What would that mean for you and your team? The potential benefits are many. The chance to ensure that the plans you are charged with implementing genuinely align to the overall objectives. The chance to avoid a world of pain by using your expertise to allay likely risks and operational difficulties. The chance to ensure streamlined delivery from the start, and ultimately improve project success rates. 

These results, by default, will reduce the troubleshooting and service delivery burden, creating room for intelligent innovation. Innovation drives growth, growth drives success and success drives the business forward. Which surely has to be the ultimate organisational goal.

If recognition of the IT function as a strategic driver can be achieved, then I believe we will find ourselves entering a new era of creativity and innovation in IT, giving IT project managers scope to flex their professional muscles and optimise their performance and results. Perhaps, just perhaps, those notorious failure rates might become a thing of the past. You may have a fight on your hands, but it is one battle that is well worth taking on.

Amy Hatton is the editor of Project Manager Today 

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