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Six steps to beat disaster

Six steps to beat disaster

Better planning before a project gets underway is crucial when it simply cannot fail.

Failed IT-based business projects are newsworthy again. In Australia and internationally, significant failures and cancellations have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars drained from corporate and government coffers and planned benefits waived. Disruption, and in some cases, severe stress, has resulted. Intelligent Business Research Services (IBRS) believes the seeds of project failure are planted early. Beyond the dictates of project management methodologies and gateway reviews, we believe six critical ¬considerations need analysis before launching vital projects. Known as the 6C2 approach, we advocate independent assessment if a project simply can't be allowed to fail.

Timing is everything. Issues identified early are likely to be far easier to manage and less costly to fix than when faced during project execution, or worse, after going live.

Concept: A superbly executed project that began with a poorly thought-through ¬concept is unlikely to deliver business value.

However, experience tells us many projects often begin prematurely and without adequate concept development.

Even a seemingly simple system upgrade project can be blind-sided. One example ¬concerns a financial system upgrade in a large semi-government organisation.

The budget had to be doubled and the project, though ultimately successful, ran considerably over time. The background was that with the organisation's software many releases behind, the intention was to carry out a compliance upgrade.

However, the project team failed to estimate the level of effort needed for data migration and cleansing. Also, the extent of business process change was overlooked for what was, in effect, a new system.

Commitment: Good projects need good friends and supporters. Anti-project behaviour may be subtle. There may be demands to stall a project by suggesting another business solution. Alternatively, major functional changes, well beyond the original scope, may be insisted upon.

Finally, how committed are the project sponsor and owner? Are they fully prepared to assume accountability? Are they prepared to make time to deal promptly and assertively with project issues as they arise and act as effective advocates for their projects?

Complexity: This increases the cost of IT-based endeavours, prolongs project delivery times, increases the risk of project failure and inflates ongoing ownership costs. Despite these factors, the tendency to build complex solutions continues.

Can the solution, including interfaces and underlying infrastructure, be simplified? One factor, rarely considered at project initiation stage, is whether ongoing system maintenance will become burdensome. Is it possible to reuse part of an existing, stable system to reduce solution complexity?

"Chunk-ability": The bigger they are, the harder they fall and the more scrutiny they require. As a rule of thumb, IBRS observes that IT-based business projects that require investments of more than $1 million and/or that run for more than 12 months are generally less likely to be successful than those that don't go on so long and cost so much.

There are many reasons for this, including complexity, change fatigue, staff turnover and a tendency for momentum to diminish when results are disappointing. If feasible, consider ways in which large, monolithic projects can be split into smaller com¬ponents with clear, tangible outcomes. Similarly, at the planning stage, examine means of speeding up delivery or reducing project duration so it fits within the desirable 12-month window (or less), with work organised into three-month chunks.

Communication and change management: Though it's improving in Australia, we have found there remains a tendency to underestimate the degree of effort required for communication and change management.

In financially straitened times it is tempting to economise on change management. Frequently, successful projects are "carried" by the in-depth business knowledge brought by subject matter experts both during the project and through the initial period of use. Similarly, there may be a reluctance to spend on external change management specialists.

Large projects carry a special risk. Given pressured deadlines it may prove quite hard for all stakeholders and project staff to synchronise fully with one another.

Calibre: Has the project team successfully discharged similar projects? Those who have will prove their value by counselling stakeholders on optimum approaches and by anticipating problems.

Don't underestimate the importance of having the right project manager. Successful ones are also strong leaders. The larger and more complex the job, the stronger the leadership qualities required. A degree of ¬charisma along with persuasiveness, indeed assertiveness, is needed to interact with top executives and to motivate project teams.

Rob Mackinnon is an adviser with IBRS. Email comments to rmackinnon@ibrs.com.au

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