Success Planning For IT Projects

Feb 25, 2005

Gary Henry

At the beginning of any IT project, the potential for failure or disappointment in the outcome is high. According to a 2004 Standish Group survey, only 27% of IT projects are delivered on-time and on-budget, with half of all IT projects being described as "challenged" and fully 15% as "impaired" or "failing."

These statistics shouldn't surprise IT managers. But, why exactly do IT projects fail? Is implementation to blame or were requirements off the mark? Is lack of critical project resources the culprit? Or, did the project deliver as planned but not improve operational performance? Did the company implement altogether the wrong solution?

While several factors can contribute to each of these failures, one common cause can lead to any of them: inadequate time and focus on the first phase of IT project delivery, pre-project planning.

Unfortunately, a common constraint put on the IT team is to find an appropriate solution quickly and avoid "costly, time-consuming" analysis on the front end. If this stereotype of analysis-paralysis persists in a company, IT managers and the consultants they work with are often put in a no-win situation.

Assessing the Landscape

Successful IT project delivery can be achieved without months of consulting or a massive redesign, but it does require an appropriate investment of time and reflection on the front end to ensure results meet expectations.

Here are a few recommendations to improve your project's delivered results.

Define the real business problem. With pressure on speed rather than results, technology solutions seem to be the fastest and often easiest solution.

However, the company may have overlooked important other factors required to solve the business problem, such as a change to business processes, organizational structure, governance or reward mechanisms.

Companies must change the focus from "doing, doing, doing" and create a recurring cycle of measurement, analysis, improvement for operational processes.

Allow appropriate analysis. In the manufacturing and corporate world, companies depend on methods that assess and help improve quality, such as Lean, Six Sigma, and Balance Scorecard.

Applying the same principles that govern manufacturing or transactional corporate processes, IT projects must undergo a quality "assessment" for strategic value, ROI, risk, and relative priority before proceeding to the implementation stage.

Analysis also includes looking outside the target process for ideas and benchmarks. Research should include internal corporate experience, the vendor/supplier experiences and the competitive landscape.

Appling relevant experience from elsewhere can be very cost efficient so look for answers in other areas such as the:

Internal corporate landscape: Understand what is going on in other divisions or areas within the company. Look for possibilities to translate lessons and results from similar processes.

Vendor/supplier landscape: Determine if a vendor or supplier has already solved the problem. If so, good ideas can come from this analysis.

Competitive landscape: Again, determine if a competitor has grappled with the same issue and if so, can we learn something from this and apply it to the current situation?

Base decisions on objective analysis. If a top executive overrides parts of the analysis based on instinct or if business areas within the organization offer up different, competing ideas and the selection of a "good" idea comes down to politics and emotion, the project becomes a risky gamble.

The analysis process should be made as transparent as possible with decisions based objectively on fact and measurable data.

Align projects with strategy. IT projects must be aligned with enterprise, business unit, and departmental strategies. More than ever, IT executives are beginning to understand that running IT like a business is paramount for projects to become successful. It is also critical to restoring IT credibility and changing the perception of IT from a cost-center to an aligned business partner.

Partner projects with process improvement. When IT managers get requests from business units to solve a problem, they often have been told, "we already know what we need to do." If performance metrics have not been defined and the current state of the business process has not been analyzed, their recommendation is likely off the mark.

By the IT team partnering with the business process improvement team, the new process design can balance the people, process and technology dimensions of the business solution. This collaboration ensures by-in from both parties; hence, the entire team sharing the outcome.

Holistic Delivery

Pre-project planning is an important and strategic first step for any IT project. It can and will make the greatest impact on any project delivery when IT:

  • Defines the business problem and how it is measured.
  • Manages all stakeholders and expectations appropriately.
  • Considers not only technology solutions, but looks first at people and processes.
  • Reviews and applies experience from within the company, from suppliers and from competitors.
  • Relies on quality data to make decisions not opinions, folklore or subjectivity.
  • Aligns the project with process improvement goals and company strategies.
  • Insists on investing time upfront to build a solid business case for maximum ROI.
  • By facilitating a look at the business problem and its related processes -- rather than any single tool or technology -- pre-project planning helps companies understand the interdependencies, consider many available solutions other than quick technology fixes, and build a solid business case for any critical IT project.

    Here are some signs that your company may need pre-project planning. If you can answer yes to one or more of these questions, your company may be in need of pre-project planning.

  • Is your priority and planning process messy and politicized?
  • Are projects constantly being implemented that are later identified as the wrong solution?
  • Do you have difficulty fast-tracking ideas that have good ROI?
  • Do you feel that poor analysis is leading to poor decision-making?
  • Do you have difficulty forecasting resource needs early in the process?
  • Do you have difficulty encouraging or fostering the evaluation of new ideas?
  • Does pressure for near-term results cause you to skip analysis?
  • Gary Henry is chairman and COO of Dominion Digital, an IT consulting firm with offices in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia. Dominion Digital helps clients improve performance through process and technology engagements. Henry is a master black belt in Six Sigma and has been involved in the technology industry since 1967. He can be reached at


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