Lessons, not lip service

A firm commitment to learning from completed IT projects will more than repay the cost and effort

It is surprising that organisations do not make more of a commitment to learning valuable lessons from completed IT projects, whether or not they are viewed as successful. This appears equally applicable to bespoke developments and package installations, or any combination of these.


However, the early identification and avoidance of problems can, to a large extent, be achieved by spending some time looking at what has gone well, and not so well, on completed projects, and then applying the lessons learned to future projects. Any aspect of a project can be encompassed here, be it delays, cost over-runs, a high level of coding errors, or a significant failure to meet user needs.


Where activities such as post-project reviews are undertaken, they are frequently viewed as nothing more than a box-ticking exercise, rather than a serious attempt to acquire benefit for the future. And even where sensible and valuable recommendations do result from a review, these quickly end up gathering dust on some rarely visited shelf, only for the same mistakes and missed opportunities to recur on future projects.


Learning from success
The situation is actually even worse, because post-project and other reviews invariably draw a lot of attention and input at the time, both from the IT department and the operational areas concerned, which means time, effort and money are being expended with little, if any, gain


It might seem obvious that lessons can be learned from projects that are viewed as having partially, let alone completely, failed. But it is equally important not to lose sight of the benefits to be gained from reviewing the reasons behind a largely, or even completely, successful project since this is an excellent route to identifying and spreading good practice throughout the organisation. This would be particularly valuable where an organisation has a history of struggling to deliver successfully on projects.


Many of the actions that could be taken are really just straightforward common sense. For example, much effort is often expended at the start of a new project in drawing up issues and risks logs, but why not benefit from experience by starting out with a standard log in each case that contains all the items previously identified as repeat offenders on earlier projects.

 
Tales of the expected
Another example might be where an organisation has consistently experienced problems with a specific stage of the project life-cycle, in which case why not draw up project plans that reflect this by allowing extra time and resources at the relevant stage of the project, instead of sticking to an industry standard template.


It must be incredibly frustrating for all those people involved in projects to find themselves working for an organisation that fails to apply such lessons, leaving IT staff and managers frustrated at negative feedback that might have been avoided, and leaving the operational staff equally frustrated at seeing mistakes repeated, with the inevitable knock-on effects for them.


It would make far more sense if such lesson-learning were a routine part of project work and, importantly, came complete with full and explicit management commitment. Perhaps one way to motivate people to realise the available benefits would be to task a nominated individual with applying the identified lessons and then including such a task within the scope of their own yearly performance review.


Whatever approach is adopted to ensure lessons are learned and benefits accrued, none of this will happen unless there is genuine and clear commitment from the IT management team.


Finally, when it comes to money, it is important to stress that the costs involved in identifying and, crucially, applying such lessons should not be viewed as an unrewarding burden, simply there to allow you to tick the box marked “post-project review”. Such costs should instead be seen as money well spent, a modest investment that will reduce the level of spending on future projects while helping to improve performance, benefiting both the IT and the operational areas of any organisation.


Colin Wood is an IT manager with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales

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